Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Annuals

The Cherry Pie Plant

by Karen Dardick


Give me an easy-care plant that flowers nonstop and offers a hauntingly beautiful fragrance, and I'm in paradise. Common heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) is a fragrant, woody perennial, native to South America. It was introduced into greenhouse culture in Europe in 1757 after travellers discovered it in Peru. Hence, it's sometimes listed and sold as H. peruvianum.

By the nineteenth century, heliotrope was used extensively for bedding plants and as standards. It was nicknamed the "cherry pie plant" because its fragrance supposedly resembles the aroma of a freshly baked cherry pie. A few species are so fragrant that they are grown in Europe to make perfume.

According to Mary Cashman, a garden specialist with White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut, heliotrope is an underused plant that's easy to care for and does well in most parts of the country except the Deep South, where high humidity limits best growth.

A member of the borage family, common heliotrope is one of about 250 Heliotropium species, but it is the only one widely grown in gardens. All are tropical or subtropical shrubs or subshrubs (a somewhat woody plant sometimes grown and used as a shrub or perennial).

Common heliotrope grows 2 to 3 feet high; some varieties are a compact 10 inches. Tiny, star-shaped flowers of deep blue, purple, lavender, or white come in tightly packed spikes that develop into rounded, 2- to 4-inch-diameter clusters. Hairy and veined 1- to 3-inch leaves have a purplish cast. All parts of the plant are toxic.

Favorite Varieties

Common heliotrope is often prized for its fragrance, but sometimes only for its color. My garden contains a white heliotrope variety (H. arborescens 'Alba') an old-fashioned variety graced with the enticing scent of vanilla. In my area of southern California (USDA Hardiness Zone 10), it flowers every month of the year. But the scent of the deep blue 'Marine', for example, is less heady than that of 'Alba'.

Here are brief descriptions of some of the varieties currently available in the United States as seeds (S) or plants (P).

'Alba' (P): strong vanilla scent; white; 2 to 3 feet.

'Fragrant Delight' (S): vanilla scent; royal purple fading to lavender; 15 to 18 inches.

'Iowa' (P): sweet, slightly winelike fragrance; deep purple; dark green leaves with a purple cast; 2 to 3 feet.

'Dwarf Marine' (S,P): scant fragrance; intense blue; bushy, compact dwarf, 10 inches.

Don't confuse common heliotrope (H. arborescens) with so-called garden heliotrope (Valeriana officinalis), a perennial herb with tiny fragrant flowers in clusters above low-growing leaves and bad-smelling roots. The latter can become invasive.

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