Heliotrope has been a treasured garden flower for centuries, and understandably so. Its sweet scent and gorgeous appearance make it ideal for cottage gardens and formal areas alike. If you love this heavenly flower as much as we do, read on! Follow our growing guide to cultivate it in your own space for years to come.
Heliotropium is the Latin name given to a handsome genus of heavily scented, flowering plants within the large Borage family. The Heliotrope genus consists of evergreen annuals, shrubs, and sub-shrubs. All have the same dark green, deep-veined, ovate leaves, and large clusters of tiny, star-shaped trumpet flowers.
In today’s times we use the heliotrope as a half-hardy annual. This means that it’s not fully frost hardy, and the growth cycle from sowing the seed to flowering all happens within the plant’s first year. Perfect to use as a seasonal bedding plant in the warmer summer months.
Heliotrope can be only be grown as a perennial in zones 9 -11. Should you live in zones 1-8, then it will need to be taken inside for the winter. It can be brought back outdoors the following spring.
Heliotrope Benefits in the Garden
It’s easy to understand the attraction of this old-fashioned, sweet-scented evergreen. Use this gorgeous shrub as an annual bedding plant for garden beds, baskets and pots. In warmer zones, grow it as a woody perennial garden shrub. Heliotrope’s flowering period spans from early May right through until September. The flowers are prolific, numerous, and colorful.
Balmy evenings enhance the heliotrope flowers’ aroma. This makes them a perfect summer addition to any sunny garden, patio area, courtyard, or pathway edging. Their sweet scent will be carried in the light breeze and enhance an ideal summer evening.
A Little History of the Heliotrope
Heliotropium is taken from the Greek words “Helios” meaning sun, and “tropos” meaning turn. Ancient Greeks believed that its leaves and flowers turn throughout the day to always face the sun. In Greek mythology, “Helios” is also the name of the sun god.
Seen as an “indication to man of daylight hours”, this move enhanced the Ancient Greeks mythological beliefs that the Heliotrope was a “Flower of the Sun”.
The flowers open in the morning, and turn from east to west over the course of the day, following the sun. During the night, the flowers return to the east position. They follow the same path the next day, and so it continues, day after day. After researching this fact, I have come to the conclusion that this may be a half-truth. The flowers open in the sunlight and close in the evening when the sun goes down, only to open again the following day.
I shall let you make up your own mind on this one!
A Vintage Star in Victorian England
A vintage genus, heliotrope made an impressive entrance in the 1700’s during England’s early Victorian period. Commonly known in this period as “The Flower of Love”, this sweet-scented beauty was often planted in large estate gardens. It also made an appearance in open parkland, and pretty much all formal gardens of the time.
Plant lovers were attracted to its deep green foliage and pretty, fragrant flower heads. It’s no wonder that this flower has remained a firm favorite throughout the years. It’s still popular, and available to buy in garden centers and nursery catalogues today.
Native to South America and Peru, heliotrope grows as a tender woody shrub in its natural environment. Its easy-growing temperament and neat bushy habit aid in its popularity. Not just a pretty shrub, it has numerous medicinal properties which are well-publicised in the world of Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy.
Heliotrope is believed to have been used over the years as a topical healing aid for many wounds and infections. Even used as a substitute for quinine in the malaria treatment. This plant was known to also aid in the healing of callouses and warts.
Other medicinal uses include easing nausea and soothing sore throats. Strangely enough, it was also used to treat uterus displacement (including prolapse), after childbirth. I’m not sure I would trust this particular practice, and for the sake of all womankind, I’m thankful times have changed.
From what I have read, a tincture of the entire plant was used for various ailments. Tinctures were made by an ancient method of pouring high percentage alcohol over the plucked blooms. The mixture was stored in an airtight jar and left to infuse for a few months. The infused alcohol could then be topically applied to the skin, or taken internally.
Other treatment remedies included making essential oils from the plant. This involved crushing leaves and flowers, and then mixing this with a natural oil. Once this had been left to infuse for a couple of months, the oil could be used for massage.
A Toxic Plant
This plant’s seeds, leaves, and stems are toxic to both animals and humans if ingested. Their poison, (which can cause liver damage and eventually death), is particularly prevalent when ingested over a long period of time. Grazing beef cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and horses are known to have been affected by the slow-acting toxins.
The poison doesn’t just cause illness to the carrier. Sources have shown in the case of dairy cattle, milk quality may also be affected.
Growing Guide for the Heavenly Heliotrope
Firstly, the Heliotrope plant loves the sunshine so ensure that your site is light and bright. At a push they will tolerate part shade, but do perform best in full sun. The sunnier the spot, the more flowers are produced.
Plant heliotrope seeds in pots using a good well-drained seed compost. Place potted seeds under cover until the risk of cold frosts has passed, and they have grown into healthy seedlings. Germination can take up to a month with some varieties, so patience is key.
Choose a planting site where the soil is warm, fertile, well-drained, and weed free. Plant out the seedlings with enough space for them to grow into their full size. Water well.
Throughout the growing season, (April – September), water your heliotrope moderately every few days. Water them more often if the weather has been very hot, as they don’t like to dry out. Use a soluble balanced plant fertilizer once a month all summer to aid growth and flower production.
When I say “balanced”, I’m referring to the plant food’s N, P and K values. Look for these details on the packaging. Ideally, you’re looking for a fertilizer that has an equal balance of all three plant nutrients. Nitrogen is used for green growth (stem and foliage). Phosphorus is needed for good root growth/establishment. Potassium is vital for flower and fruit production.
Heliotropes are very easy to cultivate, and generally only need a small amount of maintenance.
Pinch out the plant’s tips once the seedlings have taken hold and are growing well. This will result in a much bushier, stronger plant. Once flowering has started, remove any dead heads. This will promote further flowering.
If your plants are not getting enough water, their leaves will start to wilt and eventually drop off. Keep them well watered to ensure they’re not getting too dry.
Tending in Spring and Summer
Cut leggy, older plants back hard in springtime, but in warmer areas only. These heliotropes will have remained in place throughout the winter and may need re-pruning to retain a good shape.
Take softwood or semi-ripe cuttings in the summer.
Remove some of the spent flower heads after your heliotrope has flowered. Dry them out somewhere warm and well ventilated. Then collect the seeds to use the following year.
Heliotropes rarely have disease problems, but they can be prone to certain pests. They’re susceptible to whitefly pests, aphids, mealy bugs, and spider mites—mainly when grown under glass. Biological disorders can include leaf spot and rust. Use suitable insecticides and fungicides as instructed to eradicate the problems.
Heliotrope arborescens – this species of the Heliotrope is hermaphroditic. The flower has both male and female organs, and is pollinated by bees, moths, and butterflies.
Below are some of my personal favorites:
- “Princess Marina” – A small, compact cultivar (45cm tall) used for annual bedding. Its deep green leaves are oval and wrinkled looking, with a slight purple tinge. Amazing deep blue/violet flower heads grow in dense sprays, with a sweet, rich aroma.
- “Butterfly Kisses” – Another small, compact cultivar (45cm tall) used for annual bedding. Veined, deep green leaves with light purple flower heads.
- “Chatsworth” -A larger variety at up to 1.5 metres tall. Distinct dark green wrinkled leaves and clusters of small purple scented flower heads. This half-hardy shrub is perfect for growing outside in the summer months and over-wintering indoors. It has received the worthy RHS Award of Garden Merit and the RHS Garden Pollinators Award. In addition, it’s worth noting this cultivar is tolerant of city and coastal garden sites.
- “Aurea” – A stunning small, compact variety ( 40cm) with golden orange foliage. Commonly known as “Golden Cherrry Pie”, this heliotrope will brighten up any garden with its contrasting lilac-mauve, sweetly scented flower heads.
- “White Queen” – Over-winter this beautiful, half-hardy variety indoors. At a fully grown height of 1.5 to 2 metres tall, the “White Queen” is a more substantial shrub. It has delicate, large, pure white flower heads that smell of sweet roasted almonds.
Further varieties within the same species include H. arborescens “Florence Nightingale” (a taller variety with light blue-mauve flowers), “Fragrant Delight” ( at 20 inches, a smaller variety with deep purple flowers), and “Sweet Heaven” . The latter is a tender willowy specimen growing to around 1 metre with beautiful lavender-colored flower heads.