The Greek word “helios” means “sun,” and “tropos,” turn. The name is derived from its habit of turning to face the sun, a characteristic which all “heliotropic” plants exhibit.
In addition to its interesting nomenclature, this plant is classified as a shrubby perennial, or sub-shrub of the borage family of trees, shrubs, and herbs that are often bluish and fuzzy-leafed.
Its colors range from purple to white, and its clustered five-lobe flowers resemble those of the forget-me-not. Some reach over four feet in height, but dwarf varieties top out at approximately 15 inches.
An Aroma Reminiscent of Grandma’s Kitchen
Also called the common heliotrope, or garden heliotrope, its humble name belies an exceptional fragrance that has been described as cherry-almond-vanilla.
This plant is of a temperate nature, meaning that it can’t withstand harsh weather extremes. In my area of the Northeast, heliotropes grow as tender annuals. This means that even a touch of frost spells disaster.
Elsewhere in the world, they are tropical perennials. This is how they were growing when they were discovered in the eighteenth century and brought to Europe. Soon their essence was the stuff of perfumes and their beauty formed the backdrop for romance in lush cottage gardens.
Cultivating a Cottage Garden Icon
The best way to grow heliotropes is to start seeds indoors as winter ends, around February/March, and then transfer them to the garden after all danger of frost has passed.
They like sun, but can tolerate part shade, and do best in soil that is moderately moist, but well-drained. They do well in flower beds, and look particularly attractive placed in proximity to contrasting orange day lilies.
In addition to starting from seed, you may cut a leaflet from an existing plant, place it in water until it roots, and transplant it to the garden.
Sprouted leaflets may also be potted and enjoyed inside all winter, bedded outside in spring after all danger of frost has passed, or kept indoors year-round as houseplants.
You may also dig up entire plants before summer’s end, prune spent blossoms and ragged lower leaves, and pot in fresh potting soil for display indoors.
You may take indoor cultivation a step further if you are artistically inclined, and try your hand at topiary by crafting a miniature tree from your shrubby plant.
Select one stem for a trunk, or “standard,” as is often done with roses. Prune the leaves away from this stem, and allow the top to become bushy, shaping it into a round form over time. The result is an attractive mini-tree of lush foliage and flowers.
In warm climates, you may try topiary pruning outdoors.
The Care and Feeding of a Vintage Treasure
Heliotropes like to be nurtured with warmth and nutrients, so if you’re growing them indoors, keep them out of cold drafts.
Provide nourishment in the form of a slow-acting all-purpose plant food to both indoor and outdoor plants, per manufacturer’s instructions.
Heliotrope: Plant Facts
- Easy to grow
- Hardy perennial in warmer zones 10 and 11
- Moderately moist, well-drained amended soil
- Propagate from seeds or cuttings
- Sun to part shade
- Tender annual in colder climates; may be overwintered indoors.
- Up to four feet in height
- Dwarf varieties available
- Does well in pots
To keep plants bushy and attractive, prune leggy stems. When a cluster of flowers has finished blooming, remove the entire stem to retain shape, energize the plant, and encourage reblooming.
Where to Buy?
Plant, Propagate, and Enjoy this Summer
Are you ready to add a touch of vintage charm to your garden this summer? Or to your kitchen windowsill for year-round cheer?
Visit your local nursery in person or online, and sow some seeds or bed some plants today!
We love to hear from our readers. Have you planted heliotropes in your garden yet? Tell us in the comments below.
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Photo credit: Shutterstock.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!