Some years ago I found a hillside with a colony of sweetly scented white, mauve and purple flowers, eventually identified as dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis, Zone 4). Hesperis matronalisis a biennial garden escapee, one of many plants to leap the cottage garden fence. Like other plants with a slightly wild nature, it can also be a short-lived perennial. Its public distribution has been greatly increased by the wildflower seed mixes that include it. You can spot dame’s rocket from trains when travelling by back gardens or growing on highway embankments. It has been cultivated in Europe since 1562 and came to the New World as seeds in the pockets of first settlers. Dame’s rocket was favoured by Marie Antoinette, and bouquets of it were delivered to her daily during her imprisonment. (Finally we have something more than cake in common!) Marie preferred the white flowers, but I think the purple ones are more deeply scented.
Dame’s rocket is a good plant for my spare corners, quietly pretty by day and sending out its violet-like fragrance in early evening. Grown in shade, it reaches 24 inches (60 cm), but in sun the stalks are thicker and taller, with many blossoming side shoots. The blooms resemble a loose phlox flower, and the colours of self-sown seedlings are unpredictable. Seeds can be purchased (swallowtailgardenseeds.com) for the mixed colours and the purple, separately, and some nurseries sell pots of the purple-flowered variety.
In my garden, dame’s rocket is perennialin shade (making only a few new seedlings), and I never have enough. Its companions are ‘Olga Mezitt’ rhododendron (which blooms first) and mock orange (blooming when dame’s rocket is already in flower). I’m growing purple seedlings this winter for the vacant corners between cedars that have some good light, and hope for generous scent for six to eight weeks. (Plants started early in winter may bloom the first growing season.) It’s all part of my plan to sweeten the evening hours and perfume the neighbourhood. I always appreciate the rewarding moment when a stranger wanders up the driveway and asks, “What’s that gorgeous scent?”
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