This summer I want to focus on making shady garden corners more rewarding. It’s so easy to disregard these leftover spaces and leave them unplanted until the weeds move in. My solution is to make wasted corners into “destinations” that I’ll want to visit. And it wouldn’t hurt if something sweetly scented was wafting out of those corners. I’m going to use long-blooming scented plants grown from seed. Some of these plants are almost forgotten and not so easy to find. These plants are often grown for their ability to perfume the garden from a discreet location, and not meant to be focal point displays.
The first is mignonette (Reseda odorata), an annual that was the foundation of every Victorian cottage garden. Mignonette is the French term for “little darling,” and the deeply perfumed flowers have been associated with romance since Napoleon sent seeds home to Josephine during his Egyptian campaign. It’s claimed that cut stems would last months in a vase of cool water, perfuming a room through winter. There were many cultivars at one time, with names like ‘Goliath’, ‘Red Monarch’, ‘Red Giant’, ‘Incomparable’, and ‘White Pearl’. The Edwardian gardener William Robinson wrote, “ ‘Machet’ is the kind grown so largely in pots for the London market, and it is also a good kind for the open air, and ‘Goliath’ is by far the finest in my garden.” Sounds like he had more than one cultivar to make comparisons with.
Most of the named mignonette is no longer available, although there’s new breeding work going on in New Zealand. There’s a theory that the named cultivars were actually open-pollinated lines, which eventually weakened and lost their scent and upright form. No one really knows, and I’ll be happy to come up with any kind of mignonette seed. The plants are about 12 inches (30 cm) tall, and carry upright wands of fuzzy flowers from chartreuse to white, and sometimes with reddish anthers. Seedlings resent disturbance and are seldom found in garden centres. Growing from seed in pots or in the open soil is easy. Just press them shallowly into soft soil and keep them moist. Mignonette grows best in half-day sun with consistent moisture, but tolerates light shade. It only takes a few plants to perfume an area, and I plan to seed it into pots and stick them into corners, hoping the elevation will give the plants a bit more light.
Most often I see unnamed mignonette seed that could be a combination of varieties (stokeseeds.com, fragrantpathseeds.com). Occasionally named cultivars turn up, and recently I found ‘Ameliorata’ (chilternseeds.co.uk). I’ve ordered them all and hope to make a William Robinson-type comparison this summer. What’s old is new again!