Monday, July 17, 2017

1887 - Mignonette: #9 of Root's Bee Plants (with a charming history)

Reseda odorata

Mignonette, besides being a bee plant, has a fascinating history that includes a love story, chasing away headaches, and perfuming stinky neighborhoods.

As a beekeeper in Connecticut I am interested to see mignonette, while not a native, has naturalized.  Reseda odorata, Sweet Mignonette, is the escapee here, but one that has been long grown in gardens.  

A.I. Root comments it might not pay to grow it for pasturage for bees, but they do like it and it often blooms into October which honeybees appreciate.  He also mentions it is not sensitive to frost.

I was looking around for a source of seeds and found it first at The Shop: Monticello.

They comment:
"Mignonette was introduced to ornamental gardens in Europe about 1725, and because of its sweet fragrance both as a garden plant and as a cut flower, its popularity grew steadily on both sides of the Atlantic through the 19th century.  
Thomas Jefferson recorded sowing seeds for this annual at Monticello in 1811. The tiny, pale green and white flowers emit a fresh, fruity scent in summer and are attractive to bees and butterflies."
The photo below is from their seed. 

The Vermont Wildflower Farm catalog adds a great suggestion, saying that grown in a pot for a sunny windowsill mignonette is a  delight.  What a nice scent to come home to on a sunny porch!

However, getting focused on what people thought of it back in the 19th century I found a wonderful article from The Floricultural Cabinet of Joseph Harrison, a "Florist's Magazine" from 1849.

Step, E., Bois, D., Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse


It is only one age since this fragrant weed of Egypt first perfumed the European gardens, yet it has so far naturalized itself to our climate as to spring from seeds of its own scattering, and thus' convey its delightful odour from the parterre of the prince to the most humble garden of the cottager.

In less than another age we predict (without the aid of Egyptian art) that the children of our peasants will gather this luxurious little plant amongst the wild flowers of our hedge-rows.

The Reseda Odorata first found its way to the south of France, where it was welcomed by the name of Mignonette, Little-darling, which was found too appropriate for this sweet little flower to be exchanged for any other. 

By a manuscript note in the library of the late Sir Joseph Banks, it appears that the seed of

the Mignonette was sent in 1742, by Lord Bateman, from the Royal Garden at Paris, to Mr. Richard Bateman, at Old Windsor; but we should presume that this seed was not dispersed, and perhaps not cultivated beyond Mr. Bateman's garden, as we find that Mr. Miller received the seed from Dr. Adrian van Royen, of Leyden, and cultivated it in the Botanic Garden at Chelsea, in the year 1752. 

From Chelsea it soon got into the gardens of the London florists, so as to enable them to supply the metropolis with plants to furnish out the balconies, which is noticed by Cowper, who attained the age of twenty-one in the year that this flower first perfumed the British atmosphere by its fragrance. The author of the Task soon afterwards celebrates it as a favourite plant in London—
"the sashes fronted with a rangeOf orange, myrtle, or the fragrant weed."

The odour which this little flower exhales is thought by some, whose olfactories are delicate, to be too powerful for the house, but even those persons we presume must be delighted by the fragrance which it throws from the balconies into the streets of London, giving something like a breath of garden air to the " close-pent man," whose avocations will not permit a ramble beyond the squares of the fashionable part of the town. 

To such it must be a luxurious treat to catch a few ambrosial gales on a summer's evening from the heated pavement, where offensive odours are but too frequently met with, notwithstanding the good regulations for cleansing the streets and the natural cleanliness of the inhabitants in general. We have frequently found the perfume of the Mignonette so powerful in some of the better streets of London, that we have considered it sufficient to protect the inhabitants from those effluvia which bring disorders in the air. 

The perfume of Mignonette in the streets of our metropolis reminds us of the fragrance from the roasting of coffee in many parts of Paris, without which some of their streets of business in that city would scarcely be endurable in the rainy season of the year.

The Sweet Reseda or Mignonette is now said to grow naturally in some parts of Barbary, as well as in Egypt. Monsieur Desfontaiues observed it growing in the sands near Mascar in the former country, but it might have been accidentally scattered there, or have escaped from the gardens of the Moors.

This genus of plants, of which we have twelve species, was named Reseda by the ancients, from resedare to assuage, because some of the species were esteemed good for mitigating pains; and we learn from Pliny, that the Reseda was considered to possess even the power of charming away many disorders. He tells us, that it grew near the city of Ariminum, now Rimini in Italy, and that when it was used to resolve swellings, or to assuage inflammations, it was the custom to repeat the following words, thrice spitting on the ground at each repetition :—

"Reseda, cause these maladies to cease: knowest thou, knowest thou, who hath driven these pullets here? Let the roots have neither head nor foot."

We notice these absurd superstitions of the ancients, which are scarcely yet extinct in many 
country villages of this and other countries, to show how much the minds of the ignorant have always been prone towards the marvellous, and not that we "Hold each strange tale devoutly true."

Although it is so short a time since the Sweet Reseda has been known in Europe, we find that it has crept into the armorial bearings of an illustrious family of Saxony; and, as Cupid does not so frequently bestow honours of heraldry as his father Mars, we cannot avoid relating the romantic tale which introduced this fragrant and modest little flower to the Pursuivant-at-Arms.

The Romantic Story

The Count of Walsthim was the declared lover and intended spouse of Amelia de Nordbourg, a young lady possessing all the charms necessary for the heroine of a modern novel, excepting that she took delight in creating little jealousies in the breast of her destined husband. 

As the beautiful Amelia was an only child of a widowed mother, a female cousin, possessing but few personal charms, and still less fortune, had been brought up with her from infancy as a companion, and as a stimulus to her education. The amiable and humble Charlotte was too insignificant to attract much attention in the circles in which her gay cousin shone with so much splendour, which gave her frequent opportunities of dispensing a part of that instruction she had received to the more humble class of her own sex. 

(Warning: LONG sentence...)
Returning from one of these charitable visits, and entering the gay saloon of her aunt, where her entry or exit was now scarcely noticed, she found the party amused in selecting flowers, whilst the Count and the other beaux were to make verses on the choice of each of the ladies. Charlotte was desired to make her selection of a flower; the sprightly Amelia had taken a Rose; others a Carnation, a Lily, or the flowers most likely to call forth compliment; and the delicate idea of Charlotte in selecting the most humble flower, by placing a sprig of Mignonette in her bosom, would probably have passed unnoticed, had not the flirtation of her gay cousin with a dashing colonel, who was more celebrated for his conquests in the drawing-room than in the field of battle, attracted the notice of the Count, so as to make his uneasiness visible; upon which the amiable Charlotte, who, ever studious of Amelia's real happiness, wishing to amuse and to call back the mind of her cousin, demanded the verse for the Rose. 
The Count saw this affectionate trait in Charlotte's conduct, took out his pencil, and wrote for the Rose,

"Elle ne vit qu'un jour, et ne plait qu'un moment,"
"She only saw one day, and only enjoyed a moment,"

which he gave to the lovely daughter, at the same time presenting the humble cousin with this line on the Mignonette :—

"Ses qualites surpassent ses charmes."

Amelia's pride was roused, and she retaliated by her attention to the colonel and neglect of the Count, which she carried so far as to throw herself into the power of a profligate, who brought her to ruin. The Count transferred his affections from beauty to amiability; and rejoicing in the exchange, and to commemorate the event which had brought about his happiness, and delivered him from a coquette, he added a branch of the Sweet Reseda to the ancient arms of his family, with the motto,

"Your qualities surpass your charms."

The Mignonette is one of the plants whose unassuming little flowers never weary our sight; it is therefore made the image of those interesting persons whom time cannot change, and who, although deficient in dazzling beauty, attach us for life, when once they have succeeded in pleasing without its aid. 

—Flora Historica.
Flora Historica is a small book with a big name - 
Flora historica, or, The three seasons of the British parterre historically and botanically treated : with observations on planting, to secure a regular succession of flowers, from the commencement of spring to the end of autumn : to which are added, the most approved methods of cultivating bulbous and other plants, as practised by the most celebrated florists of England, Holland, and France

The above article on mignonette was taken, in part,  from Flora Historica by the Florist'd Magazine.