Reseda odorata, more often simply called 'Mignonette' meaning ‘little darling’ in French, has captured the hearts of gardeners and poets for centuries. The plant can reach 60cm (2ft) in height, with medium green foliage that yields plump, dense spires of chartreuse and white flowers that fade to cream. While the plant is not overly showy, the flowers are intensely fragrant, with a sweet and spicy scent.
Mignonettes bear long spikes, technically racemes, of small white or yellowish green flowers that have gold anthers, they make a wonderful addition to floral arrangements. Even dried, the flowers retain their fragrance for several months, and can be added to homemade potpourri. After flowering the seed pods look much like lanterns and are lovely filler ingredient for bouquets.
Grown as an annual in most areas, though it may be biennial in hotter areas of the world. The flowers are excellent plants for attracting wildlife and are pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects.
Reseda odorata, Mignonette is an ancient plant with a long recorded history. It was introduced to ornamental gardens in Europe about 1725, and because of its sweet fragrance both as a garden plant and as a cut flower, its popularity grew steadily through the 19th century.
Historically it was believed that the plant had magical powers and that its fragrance could ward off diseases carried through the air. Even today, it is widely grown for its flowers’ delicate musky fragrance and for an essential oil that is used in perfumery.
Humble though it may appear, mignonette is a charming and historic addition to any garden. Any flower that can inspire a century of praise is worth preserving!
Sowing: Sow in Spring.
Mignonette does not respond well to transplanting. As soon as the ground can be worked in spring prepare a seedbed and direct sow the seeds into moist soil once the soil temperatures climb above 20°C (70°F) in mid-late 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. 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.
Harvest when bottom third of the flowers on a spire open or leave and pick after seed pods mature. The stems are delicate and must be picked with care. Expect a vase life of 5 days for fresh flowers.
After flowering the seed pods look much like lanterns, the stems and pods will last 7 days in a vase.
Wait for the spikes to form little green pods, and for those pods to turn brown. Then cut the spikes and allow them to further dry on a screen for 1 to 2 weeks. When the pods are super crisp, crunch them between your hands or against a screen to release the seeds.
After rubbing, pass your batch through your screens and winnow to remove light material. Store in a cool dark place that has a stable temperature.
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 naturalised 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”!
Reseda is a genus of about 40 species of fragrant-flowered herbs and shrubs in the family Resedaceae. They are native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia and have been widely introduced elsewhere. The exact origins of R. odorata are unknown, but botanists believe it to be native to the Mediterranean Basin.
Nowadays, you can find species of Reseda naturalised in the wild in many parts of the world, several have become popular garden flowers. Other species include wild, or yellow, mignonette (R. lutea) and white mignonette (R. alba). Weld (R. luteola) yields a yellow dye that has been used for more than 3,000 years.
Its Latin name is derived from the Latin resedare, meaning ‘to assuage,’ because it was believed useful in healing bruises and pains.
The species name odorata means 'fragrant' or 'sweet-smelling'.
In French, the common name Mignonette means ‘little darling’, from Middle French mignon meaning 'lover, darling, favourite', from Old French mignon 'dainty, pleasing, gentle, kind'.
The diminutive suffix 'ette' is added to create an endearing word, diminutive, or euphemism, for example as a pet name.
Although the origin of the name ‘mignonette’ remains a mystery, much has been written. This unassuming flower seems to captivate the imagination when it comes to poems, musings, fairy tales and legends.
A popular 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 also reputed to have collected seed for Empress Joséphine’s garden at the Château de Malmaison. No factual records exist so we cannot be sure whether this is true or not, however the plant-loving empress certainly did have mignonette grown in her gardens, as it would have grown in many gardens of the time.
In the late 1800's, mignonette was still popular enough that American author Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, (best known for her classic children's novels 'What Katy Did' from 1872), writing under her pen name Susan Coolidge, published this poem musing on the origins of the plant.
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.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 2 grams Average Seed Count 1,500 seeds Family Resedaceae Genus Reseda Species odorata Common Name Sweet Scented Mignonette Other Language Names IR - Buí beag / Buí mór Hardiness Hardy Annual Flowers White Natural Flower Time June to August Fruit The fruit is a small dry capsule containing several seeds. Foliage Basel rosette 20-30cm (8-12in) tall Height Flower height: 90-135cm (36 to 55in) Spread 30cm (12in) Position Full sun preferred Soil Prefers free-draining but will grow in any soil Time to Sow Late winter/late spring or late summer/autumn. Germination 7 to 14 days at room temperature.