The heliotrope is a flower that most of us or our parents might have hazy recollections of. Perhaps their older neighbors grew it in their backyards.
Maybe you have memories of your grandparents growing it in their own garden. Or perhaps you’ve seen it on enough old material from generations gone by, whether that’s photos, memorabilia, or in old TV and movies.
The point is, the heliotrope is a plant from years gone by, a classic staple grown in older gardens from an older generation.
Perhaps it’s that sense of old-fashioned, a belief that it wasn’t something fresh and new in a rapidly expanding gardener’s seed and flower collection, that caused this beautiful flower to fall out of favor in many gardener’s hearts over the decades.
However, in the past few years, the heliotrope has seen something of a comeback. Its status as a classic flower, coupled with its dazzling looks, makes it a popular option for gardeners to pluck from their memories, and into their flower beds.
To help enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with this flower from years gone by getting to grips with this renaissance for the heliotrope, we’ve compiled this guide for your viewing pleasure.
We talk about what sets this flower apart from others, some of its characteristics and history, the symbolism it carries, both on a personal and cultural level, as well as when you should give them as a gift to others.
Heliotrope Flower – What Is It?
The Heliotrope, also known as a cherry pie, or white queen, depending on the variety we are talking about, is a family of flowering plants that is grown all across the world, especially in temperate and tropical climates that provide them with large amounts of water that they need.
They were originally grown and cultivated across both Asia and Europe, but they have since become popular around the world, planting themselves in many new places and environments such as North and South America, as well as in Australia and across the islands of the Pacific.
They are best known for green leaves that are rich in both color and texture, their fragrant smell at the height of the season, and their small, vibrant flowers that grow in clusters across the shrub plant.
Heliotropes usually come in shades of purple, but many other varieties exist that allow for pinks, blues, whites, and plenty more. Although they are often grown from seeds, and grow quickly if given a good start from early on, it is also possible to grow heliotropes from cuttings too.
That smell that heliotropes carry varies from plant to plant. Some are known to smell faintly like fresh cherries, whilst other cultivars have been recorded smelling like vanilla, or sugar. It’s this variety that has made these plants popular in the past.
Etymological Meaning Of The Heliotrope Flower
Depending on which species we are talking about, the heliotrope family of flowers has gathered a massive number of names and nicknames, all with fascinating origins that stem from their culture’s linguistic history.
Many regional names refer to a specific aspect of the plant that has been noted in that area. Take the name ‘cherry pie’, for example. This name is a clear signifier of the kind of fragrance that the plant produces and what it reminded the locals of, specifically, the scent of cooked cherries.
The ‘white queen’ varieties share a similar origin, primarily for their stark white flowers, which are a stark contrast to the more common purple flowers that are usually found.
The name of the Heliotrope genus comes from the Old Greek words ‘hēlios’, meaning ‘sun’ (also tying it to the Ancient Greek sun deity), and the Greek term for describing the turning of an object ‘trepein’.
This creates the Greek word ‘hēliotropion’ meaning ‘plant which turns its flowers to the sun’. This word would become Latinized into ‘heliotropium’, where we get the genus name from.
The word ‘heliotrope’ continues to evolve, however, becoming the Old English word ‘elliotropus’, which would be merged with the French name for the plant ‘héliotrope’, becoming the common name for the garden flower ‘heliotrope’.
As you can see, the name for the plant has remained relatively consistent, whilst traveling through centuries of linguistic evolution.
The Symbolism Of The Heliotrope Flower
The flower is very much tied to the sun, and this is expressed in several ways. Thanks to the story of the nymph Clytie’s unrequited love for the sun god Helios, a topic we will discuss later, the heliotrope is often shown as a symbol of love that is devoted and everlasting, regardless of what the recipient feels or that might hurt the giver.
The flower also represents the passion and resilience that comes with this kind of devotion to another.
Because of their association with the sun, the heliotrope also carries with it many ties to the element of fire. Connecting back to the themes of love and passion it represents, the flower can symbolize the burning passion someone feels for another.
Heliotrope Flower Color Meanings
Purple might be the most common color of heliotrope out there, it is not alone. White and blue can also be found in this flower, and all have their part to play in sharing the symbol that heliotropes are known for: The symbol of love.
- Purple: The most common color that a heliotrope can be found in, purple is a vivid color that represents the love that transcends physical attraction and also demonstrates a connection between two individuals that touches the other’s soul. They are also associated with royalty and tradition, given the strong connection between purple and royal dynasties of history. It may be one of the reasons why the flower was so popular with English Victorians.
- White: White is the most common color of heliotrope to find outside the traditional purple color. As the purple flower, the white heliotrope is a representation of the love that is shared between two people. In this case, however, it can a symbol of love that is pure and innocent. That affection is something that can be expressed honestly, and without fear of needing to hold anything back. They are also a symbol of sympathy for others and are popular when expressing condolences for others in any situation.
- Blue: A rarer color to find on heliotropes, blue is a color that often acts as both a balance between purple and white flower symbology, but also as a compliment. Whilst purple represents the romantic love for another, and white represents an intimate and honest love for others, blue can represent a serene kind of love, a kind that stills the rattled heart of the person who receives them. In this sense, because it is a very personal interaction between two people, blue also represents a very intimate kind of love.
These three meanings help emphasize how heliotropes are the ultimate symbols of love for those around you, whatever form that may take.
Meaningful Botanical Characteristics Of The Heliotrope Flower
The Heliotropium genus is part of the Boraginaceae family of plants, which includes other well-known flowers such as the comfrey, the fiddleneck, and the forget-me-not flower family. Plants of this family tend to have alternately arranged leaf systems, although this is not a universal rule.
Heliotropiums, as we already mentioned, are a plant that is usually found and ground around the tropics, with some of this plant’s range also covering temperate areas in places where humidity and rainfall are high enough.
The Heliotrope also comes in both annual and perennial varieties. This means that, depending on which species or cultivar is being grown, the flowering plant will complete its life cycle within the space of one or two years.
The plant itself is a pretty low-growing shrub, rarely growing taller than 3 feet in height at its peak.
Heliotropes grow at their best when they are placed in soil conditions which means that they receive regular exposure to sunlight, whether that’s either chemically neutral or slightly alkaline.
Heliotropes are also a highly toxic genus of flowers. Their flowers, leaves, stems, and roots all produce high quantities of poisonous alkaloids, as a defense mechanism against many insects that usually feast on their leaves and stems.
A human or pet that consumes enough of this plant can expect weight loss, general weakness, liver failure, and neurological issues over a very short period, going from appearing healthy after consuming the plant, to showing symptoms in a matter of days.
Fortunately, most animals tend to ignore eating it, as it is quite unpalatable for most foragers and herbivores. However, if heliotropes are the only available green material for an animal to eat, or have somehow contaminated their feed, such as in consumed hay, then the likelihood of poisoning is very high.
Special Occasions For The Heliotrope Flower
As a symbol of love, the heliotrope is a popular flower to have at weddings, where they are a signifier of the love between the bride and groom. It is a sign that the love shared between the two is something beyond what mortal words can say. Adding a heliotrope flower to a bouquet adds a beautiful dash of deep purple to any arrangement.
The green from the heliotrope leaves can also represent the harmony between the two people, and act as a wish that it will last for years to come.
And in those years to come, Heliotropes are also a popular gift and symbol to be offered on anniversary occasions.
Here, the flower also works as not just a symbol of love, but of everlasting love and devotion to your significant other. As they already symbolize an otherworldly kind of love, their long-lasting affection for one another is something that can last for the rest of someone’s life.
They are also, if somewhat a little rarely, used in arrangements for people’s funerals. That everlasting love that they represent is something that transcends even life and will continue for as long as they exist in the memories of the other.
Heliotrope Flower Cultural Significance
The name of the Heliotrope, as we’ve already touched on, stems from the Greek myth of the sun god Helios, as his betrayal of the nymph Clytie. The exact result depends on which regional story is being told. In some versions of the tale, Clytie dies of a broken heart.
Taking pity on her, Helios transforms her into the flowing plant that will always face the sun whilst it is in the sky. In other versions of the myth, specifically Ovid’s telling of it in the Metamorphoses, the heliotrope flower emerges from Clytie’s body as she wasted away, functioning as a symbol of her unrequited love for the god, where he did not answer or pity her.
It’s a sentiment that is in line with Ovid’s other interpretations of classic Greco-Roman mythology.
Much of the original fascination with the heliotrope flower stems from the Victorian languages of flowers, where many flower colors and species were used to convey messages that would not be appropriate to verbalize in Victorian society.
The flower’s deep purple was also very popular to grow in public spaces, especially the Common heliotrope species. The vanilla-like fragrance that it created meant that it was a popular plant to grow in parks.
Emily Dickinson, one of the most prolific and pivotal poets in American poetry history of the 19th century, was buried with the vanilla-scented variety of heliotropes laid on the top of her coffin.
Given the poet’s many works that focused on themes of both flowers and gardening, as well as morbidity and death, it was certainly an appropriate final flower to be laid to rest with her.
Many cultivars are named after notable women of history. ‘Mary Fox’, the illegitimate daughter of King William the 4th, and ‘Florence Nightingale’, the reformer and founder of modern nursing practices, are amongst some names of popular varieties of heliotropes that can be found today.
Heliotrope Flower Trivia
- ‘Heliotrope Bouquet’ is the title of a popular ragtime melody that is traditionally played on the piano, a style that is defined by its off-beat rhythms.
- Heliotropes tend to bloom between June and October in the Northern Hemisphere.
- Heliotrope flowers and leaves turn to face and follow the sun whilst it is out during the day.
- Heliotropes are considered an invasive weed in Australia, being the most damaging invasive plant species to the country, as it often grows on arable land that farmers grow their crops on. It is estimated to have cost the Australian government over 500,000 Australian dollars in damages to the national economy, the situation is that bad!
- Although they tend not to grow very tall in gardens, Heliotropes in the wild come in all shapes and sizes. Some species can even grow as small trees, reaching up to 12 feet tall in some examples!
Heliotrope Flower Uses
The heliotrope is a toxic plant to consume raw for people and animals, as we already touched on. However, they have found themselves being used in plenty of herbal remedies.
The juice from the Indian heliotrope has been used to treat injuries such as ulcers and other small open wounds for many years where it grows in the Philipines, although treatment of mouth ulcers is done carefully, given the toxic nature that all parts of the plant share.
The plant has also been used to treat a whole range of skin conditions like calluses and warts, either in its raw form as a plant, or when it is used in essential oils.
Oils are where heliotropes find they are most used, as they can be used in creating scented perfume. Oils and saps from the heliotrope plant could also be used as a kind of food coloring, which was fairly common throughout Europe in the medieval to the early modern period, especially in places like France.
Symbolism Of A Heliotrope Flower Tattoo
Flowers are a common symbol when it comes to tattoos. The long, flowing imagery is a popular choice to have inscribed onto your body.
The heliotrope flower is specifically a symbol that many people choose to have on them because it represents the devotion to another person, often their partner or someone they are romantically attracted to.
Having that symbol of love permanently etched onto your body is certainly an appropriate way of reflecting that for some people.
As we’ve seen in this guide, there are plenty of reasons to show this wonderful flower the love and attention it deserves.
Much like the love it represents, the light and the love that this flower embodies make it a symbol that has endured the test of time, and allowed it to root its way back into the public gardens and hearts. And we hope this guide has helped show you why that is!
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