by Matt Gibson
Heliotropes were probably a major staple of your grandmother’s flower garden. The big purple to white (and in-between) flower clusters all but disappeared in modern garden until recently, as the heliotrope flower has become popular again, and can be seen popping up in sunny spots in gardens all around the world. The reason heliotrope has made a comeback amongst gardeners is still a mystery. Perhaps people are planting them now to remember a simpler time, or simply because they are aesthetically pleasing.
Not only do heliotrope flowers have a certain fragile beauty that can’t help but draw the eye, heliotropes are also heavily perfumed with a pleasant amaretto aroma that is may be leading the nose of flower lovers to their nearest garden center. The flower is also known as cherry pie due to the scent, but different folks smell different things when inhaling the aroma of the heliotrope plant. Some smell cherry pie, some smell vanilla, some smell a cherry vanilla or cherry almond aroma. Perhaps the fragrance itself is the sole reason for the buzz, I mean who doesn’t want to smell sweet cherry pie throughout the day?
However, don’t let that sweet smell fool you, heliotrope is actually quite toxic if ingested, so I suppose we can rule out any medicinal reasons why heliotrope stocks are on the rise. However, just between its aesthetic beauty and it’s potent and eloquent fragrance alone, there’s no wonder why heliotrope is finding its way back into the gardens (and hearts) of botanists everywhere.
Varieties of Heliotrope
As with most popular flowers, heliotrope has been altered and bred until there are lots of different cultivars to choose from. The most popular varieties of heliotrope are the colorful and hardy ‘Princess Marina,’ ‘Mary Fox,’ the taller varietal, ‘Florence Nightingale,’ and the highly inviting and fragrant varieties, “White Lady” and “White Queen.” Some heliotrope hybrids were bred for their looks only and are somewhat lacking in the fragrance department.
The most fragrant varieties of heliotrope are, ‘Alba’, ‘Fragrant Delight’, ‘Iowa,’ and, ‘Sachet.’ The ‘mini-marine’ variety grows only 8 to 10 inches tall, perfect for window boxes and small pots. The ‘chatsworth’ variety won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, and display’s bright purple blooms and an extended blooming period.
Growing Conditions Heliotrope
Hailing from the tropical region of Peru, heliotrope is not suited to endure winters, and though it loves a lot of sunlight (at least six hours of direct sunlight exposure is recommended, preferably during the morning hours), afternoon shade is a must in warm climate regions.
Heliotropes are considered turnsoles, meaning they turn and stretch to follow the sun as it moves across the sky. In fact, the name heliotrope actually means, “to move with the sun,” as helio means, “sun,” and trope means, “to move.”
Make sure you place heliotropes in a very sunny spot that gets full exposure throughout most of the day. A little shade in the afternoon won’t hurt, but the sunnier the better when it comes to location. Heliotrope appreciates a rich, loamy soil, and is not fond of soils that are high in clay.
We recommend growing in containers for several reasons. One, they can be moved around wherever you want to put them so that you can enjoy the wonderful fragrance that they emit. Two, using containers greatly reduces the chance that they will become infected with powdery mildew.
As an added bonus, planting in containers will save you the hassle (and save the plant the shock) of having to repot them to bring them indoors for the winter, which is recommended if you want to grow the plants again next year.
Heliotropes like a lot of water, and a lot of fertilizer when in garden beds, but when you plant them in containers, they need even more than they do in the ground. In general, try to keep the topsoil moist at all times.
In most areas, this means that you should water plants every other day, most especially during droughts or dry spells and fertilize potted heliotropes once every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer for flowering plants. They will thank you with lots of blooms.
How To Plant Heliotrope
Growing Heliotrope from seed is the most popular method. Start indoors about 10-12 weeks before the last spring frost date in normal soil. Germination takes 27-42 days and requires temperatures between 70-75 F. Transfer your heliotropes outdoors once the soil has warmed to 60 degrees F or hotter and the danger of frosts have past.
Use cuttings if you really want to have the same exact kind of flower as you see on the parent plant, and to provide a more sturdy and hardy starting point for your young flowers. Take your cuttings in the summer for best results.
Care for Heliotrope
Pinching back the plant early on before blooming starts is the most essential way to care for your heliotropes, aside from basic water, soil, sun and fertilizer treatments. Doing this will not only promote a longer and more pronounced blooming season, it also helps the plant become more bushy well structured, as well as promotes the growth of a stronger root system.
Pruning leggy stems is important to keep your plants looking bushy and full. When a cluster of flowers finishes blooming and begins to dry up, remove the entire stem to encourage regrowth.
When the summer season is finally coming to an end, prune old blossoms and lower level leaves, then pot your heliotropes using fresh new potting soil and bring indoors for the cold season. This way, you have your heliotropes fully grown and healthy for transplanting into your garden when the next season rolls around, and you can still enjoy the flavorful bouquet year round, by moving them indoors.
If you live in a frost free zone, keep heliotropes in the ground over winter, as they will act as a perennial in frost-free areas. If you are in an area that is prone to frost, bringing heliotropes indoors is your best option. Care for indoor heliotropes like you would most any houseplant. Put them in a spot where they will receive ample sun and water and fertilize regularly with an organic plant food.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Heliotrope
As discussed earlier in the article, heliotrope is susceptible to powdery mildew when grown in garden beds. To avoid this problem, plant in containers or simply plant them further away from each other to allow plenty of room and make sure that your soil is well aerated. You can also try spraying them down with a mild fungicide.
For the most part, heliotrope is pretty resistant to pests and diseases if you provide them with the right conditions. In especially hot and moist conditions, heliotrope is susceptible to fungal infections. A general fungicide is usually all you will need to amend the problem. When grown indoors, heliotrope tends to attract spider mites. Rid your plants of these mites easily by treating them with an insecticidal soap spray or just by spraying them off with a bit of water in your sink.
Plant heliotrope with other low growing colorful blooms that won’t block the sunlight. ‘Nasturtiums’ and ‘calendula’ are both great choices for this reason. The dark green and purple iridescence and textured foliage of the heliotrope plant also works well with plants with pastel hues like ‘lobelia’ and ‘alyssum’, or ground covers with silvery foliage such as ‘cascading’ and ‘dusty miller.’
The heliotrope flower symbolizes eternal love, as well as religious salvation and devotion. Heliotrope, when placed by the bedside, has been used to promote prophetic dreaming. The flower also represents healing, wealth, and invisibility.
Due to the plant’s (and the plant’s seeds) toxicity, you will want to grow heliotrope in a place that is out of the reach of small children and beloved pets. When repotting or handling the plant extensively, gardening gloves are highly recommended.
Videos About Heliotrope
Check out this video with care, pruning and how to grow tips:
Check out this video for growing heliotrope from seed:
Watch this video to learn about other great smelling house plants:
Want to Learn More About Heliotrope?
Gardener’s Path covers Growing Heliotropes
Gardening Know How covers Growing Heliotrope
Gardening With Charlie covers How to Grow Heliotrope
Horticulture Magazine covers Grow Heliotrope for Its Most Fragrant Annual Flowers
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