Despite its small stature, mignonette (Reseda odorata) has captured the hearts of both gardeners and poets for centuries. I first came across a mention of mignonette in a garden book, and I thought a plant whose name meant “little darling” in French had to be something special. Nineteenth-century authors further confirmed my feelings with glowing praise for its clean, violet-like fragrance. I remember being somewhat disappointed the first time I saw a picture of it, however. The plant can reach 2 feet in height, but often remains closer to 1 foot tall, with narrow, crinkled green leaves and loose spikes of small cream and orange flowers. Its Latin name is derived from the Latin resedare, meaning “to assuage,” because it was believed useful in healing bruises and pains, and from odoratus, “scented.” Historically, people believed that the plant had magical powers and that its fragrance could ward off certain diseases carried through the air.
I’m irresistibly drawn to any plant with an interesting history, so I finally learned how to grow mignonette in my garden last year. It has since won my heart completely! I fully agree with The Favorites of the Flower Garden, an 1844 gardening treatise that crows, “This simple, unattractive weed, which is the envy of the gay and glittering throng that surrounds it in a garden, and which has no rivalry to dread, except from the Rose and Violet, is one of the first flowers that we learn to gather, and the very last that we cease to value.”
Mignonette was reportedly first introduced to the south of France, “where it was welcomed by the name of Mignonette, Little-darling, which was found too appropriate for this sweet flower to be exchanged for any other,” according to Henry Phillips in his 1824 book Flora Historica. Phillips claims that the royal gardeners in Paris first sent the seed for mignonette to a Mr. Richard Bateman in 1742. However, further records of mignonette being cultivated and dispersed in gardens don’t appear until 1752, when seed was grown in botanical gardens in Chelsea, England — indicating that the seed was shared among gardeners in Western Europe. Mignonette quickly became very popular in London, where it was grown in pots on balconies, perfuming the streets so strongly that it was believed to protect the residents from the ill effects of “bad air” emanating from the river and trash heaps in the city.
Mignonette was also sometimes grown indoors, although Phillips writes that “the odour which this little flower exhales is thought by some, whose olfactories are delicate, to be too powerful for the house.” In the 70 years between mignonette’s introduction to England and Phillips’ time, it naturalized in many places, conveying its sweet, penetrating scent from royal gardens to cottage-lined countryside lanes. Joseph Breck, founder of the eponymous mail-order gardening company Breck’s, writes in his 1851 book The Flower Garden that he had heard from “a creditable London seedsman” that “he alone sold a ton and a half of [mignonette] seed yearly”!
‘Little Darling’ Through Time
The exact origins of R. odorata are unknown, but botanists believe it to be native to the Mediterranean Basin. Nowadays, you can find mignonette naturalized in the wild in many parts of the world. The origin of the name “mignonette” remains a mystery as well.
According to a French fairy tale, mignonette was so named by a young girl who was bewailing her homely appearance. A fairy appeared in the form of an old woman and asked the girl why she was crying. The girl told her that she longed to be beautiful so everyone would love her, and the fairy replied, “If you will do just as I tell you for one year, your wish will be granted. Go out into the world, and never let an hour pass without doing something to make someone happier, and do not look into a mirror until I come again.” When the fairy disappeared, she left a little mignonette plant in a flowerpot. The girl exclaimed, “Oh! The little darling!” and tended to it carefully. She did as the fairy told her and became so interested in helping people that she didn’t even think to look in a mirror. A year passed quickly, and when the fairy returned, she held up a mirror, saying, “Look.” The girl was amazed when she saw her reflection. Her eyes, once dim with crying, were bright and clear, her cheeks were rosy, and the whole expression of her face was changed. Then, the fairy said to her, “You have filled your heart with such beautiful thoughts and your life with such beautiful deeds that a beautiful soul shines in your face. Your wish is granted, and like the flower I left, you will create a sweet atmosphere about you wherever you go.”
Another legend claims Napoleon’s soldiers named the plant after seeing it growing during his Egyptian campaign. When they inhaled the delicious fragrance, they were delighted and cried in ecstasy, “Mignonette!” While it’s a nice story, it’s almost certainly untrue — remember, mignonette was recorded growing in Paris in 1742, half a century before Napoleon ever invaded Egypt. Napoleon is reputed to have collected seed for Empress Joséphine’s garden at the Château de Malmaison, however, and the plant-loving empress certainly did have it grown in her gardens.
In the Victorian language of flowers, mignonette means “your qualities surpass your charms.” As usual, there’s a story to support the motto. The Count of Walsthim was betrothed to Amelia of Nordbourg, a beautiful but coquettish heiress. Amelia had a cousin named Charlotte who, being the only child of her widowed mother, had been brought up with Amelia as a companion. Charlotte had a beautiful heart but, being rather plain in appearance and having no dowry, didn’t receive as much attention from wealthy young people as Amelia did.
One evening at a party, the guests devised a game in which the ladies were to choose a flower, for which the gentlemen were to compose an appropriate verse. Amelia, who had been arousing her lover’s jealousy all evening by accepting a disreputable colonel’s attentions, picked a rose. The rest also gathered the showiest flowers, such as lilies or carnations. When they were nearly done, Charlotte returned from a charitable visit and was invited to join in their game. She modestly chose a sprig of mignonette and presented it to the count, at the same time asking him what verse he had written for Amelia’s rose. He then gave Amelia this line: “She lives but for a day, and pleases but for a moment.” Then, he handed a verse to Charlotte that read, “Your qualities surpass your charms.”
The count and Charlotte were eventually married, and the count added a branch of mignonette to his family arms along with the motto, in honor of his bride.
As with many antique flowers, modern plant breeding has actually lessened mignonette’s good qualities. Breeders attempted to develop plants with larger flowers, but as educator Harriet Keeler wrote in Our Garden Flowers in 1910, “… enlarging the spikes has not always improved the odor; in some cases this has been transformed into something unpleasant, in others totally destroyed, in others strengthened.”
I’ve had trouble finding seeds for a fragrant mignonette, which I suppose is at least partly to blame for its decrease in popularity. I now grow ‘Machet,’ a cultivar introduced in about 1889. Although the fragrance is definitely not what I would call overpowering, it is quite unlike that of any other flower I know. The best way I know to describe the scent is “clean,” while others call it “violet-like.”
Humble though it may appear, mignonette is a charming and historic addition to any garden, and I hope to see more gardeners include it in their plots soon. Any flower that can inspire a century of praise is worth preserving!
In the late 1800s, mignonette was still popular enough that American author Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, writing under her pen name Susan Coolidge, published this poem musing on the origins of the plant in St. Nicholas, an illustrated children’s magazine of the time.
Who gave you your name, Little Darling?
I wish that I knew.
Such a tiny, sweet, lovable blossom;
I half think that you grew
In the Garden of old, and believe
You were christened by Eve.
Was she first of all women to find you?
Did she gather and smell,
And carry a cluster to Adam?
If we could only tell
What they said and they did, he and she,
How nice it would be!
Or was it some quaint maiden
Of France in old days,
Who spied you and loved you and called you
(Oh, sweetest of praise!)
Caressingly, as to a pet,
By the name of Mignon-ette?
So whether in France or in Eden,
‘Tis all one to me,
Yours is just the best name, Little Darling,
Could possibly be.
And though no one had taught me, I yet,
Should say — Mignonette.
How to Grow Mignonette
Mignonette is grown as an annual in most areas, though it may be biennial in Zone 10. The plant reseeds readily, so there’s little chance of it vanishing from your garden if you let some of the flowers go to seed outside.
Direct-sow into moist soil as soon as the ground can be worked in spring. For continuous blooms, sow at three-week intervals into early summer. Mignonette isn’t choosy about soil, though it grows best in moist conditions, and can tolerate full sun to part shade.
Pinch back occasionally when the plants are young to encourage branching, which will promote more blooms. Mignonette makes excellent cut or dried flowers and will retain its fragrance well.
Joanna Ridenour grows over 60 flowers and herbs, many of them heirlooms, and runs a seed business at Heirloom Cottage Garden. She also blogs about her garden adventures for Heirloom Gardener.