14 Jan Dame’s Rocket
Curious about the odd use of the word “rocket”, particularly in the 1500’s which is prior to such things as rockets, the actual reference is to the French word “roquette” which translates to arugula.
In his 1597 book, The Herbal or General History of Plants, English herbalist James Gerard pens a lovely description of Hesperalis matronalis: “There be sundry kinds of Rocket; some tame, or of the garden; some wilde, or of the field; some of the water; and of the sea.” Dame’s Rocket was first introduced to this country by European settlers in the 1700’s – whereupon the seeds escaped those early gardens to naturalize widely across the Eastern portion of North America.
While out walking, there is nothing quite so elegant as coming upon a wide-open field filled with lovely clumps of violet blooms, each tall spike waving merrily in the breeze. This is especially so as enticing tendrils of fragrance waft past the nose, which invites a necessary walk through the field. This delicately scented plant sports many common names including Summer Lilac, Damask Violet, Dame’s Wort, Mother-of-the-Evening, night-scented Gilliflower. Dame’s Rocket is an integral part of our Eastern Kansas landscape, having escaped to the wild from early gardens. Its evening scent and showy blooms makes this plant a striking addition to any pollinator garden.
Hesperis is a Greek word for evening. It is an apt description for the glorious scent floating in the evening breeze. The word “Dame” refers to the Victorian language of the flowers, symbolizing deceit whose fragrance is only at night. The use of the Latin word, Matronalis, refers to the Roman Festival of the Matrons.
This plant is an important food source in early spring for emerging and hungry pollinators. However, Dames Rocket is quite the prolific re-seeder, and considered invasive in some areas, so check first before scattering seeds!
Biennials, Hesperis matronalis are members of the mustard or cruciferae family of arugula, radish, cabbage, wintercress, and broccoli.
Several species of bees find precious sustenance in early spring to feed the hive from large patches of these showy blooms beginning in late April to July and sometimes into August. Warmer weather shortens the blooming time. Two rows of tiny seeds fill long pods that burst open similar to pea pods.
This American Bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus, uses its hind legs to brush any clinging pollen grains into the yellow, pollen-carrying structure on the hind legs. When the basket is full, the bee returns to the hive to deposit the food before returning to the flowers.
The tall, spiky Dame’s Rocket is one of the most important nectar sources in our garden. Easy to transplant and fairly drought-resistant, each year we dig up new plants and move them to other places on the property so there is plenty of food. As of this writing in mid-April, the first Monarch butterfly desperately searches for nectar flowers in bloom. The only thing available is Dandelion and Stinging Nettles. It will be another week or more before the abundant Dame’s Rocket is in bloom!
The Herbal or General History of Plants, John Gerard, London 1597
Authors: Kathleen Hird Kostner and Ricardo Kostner
© Hird and Kostner | Image reproduction only with written permission from the authors.