How to Grow Mignonette: A ‘Little Darling’ of a Flower

Unassuming mignonette has a long history sweetening gardens and windowsills with its clean scent and delicate flower spikes.

  • mignonette
    Masses of small, white-and-orange flowers bedeck mignonette plants from late spring into summer.
    Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Hekeru
  • mignonette
    Though the flowers are unimpressive, in a mixed border mignonette will add the scent many showier flowers lack.
    Photo by Joanna Ridenour

  • mignonette
  • mignonette

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.”

Early Cultivation

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.”

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