Herb to Know: Dame's Rocket

| June/July 1996

Worth growing for its delicious ­­­­­­fra­grance­ alone, dame’s rocket also offers showy, long-lasting flowers and is as trouble-free an herb as you could ask for. Its multitude of common names attests to centuries of cultivation in gardens and to the high regard in which it has been held. Dame’s or sweet rocket, dame’s or damask violet, rogue’s or queen’s gilliflower, vesper flower, mother-of-the-evening: many of the names allude to its sweet scent—likened to a mixture of clove and violet—and to the time of day when that scent is released into the air. The name damask violet may be an association with the fragrant damask rose (Rosa damascena), or perhaps someone confused “damask” with “dame”. The name gilliflower was originally applied to pinks and carnations (Dianthus spp.), many of which have a clove scent. The generic name, Hesperis, comes from the Greek hesperos, “evening”, and matronalis, is Latin for “of a married woman”.

The genus Hesperis consists of about sixty biennial or perennial herbs native to the Mediterranean region and central Asia, of which dame’s rocket is the only species that is cultivated extensively. Its value as an ornamental led to its introduction as a garden flower throughout Europe, where it subsequently naturalized. During the seventeenth century, it arrived in America as a garden flower, escaped, and now grows wild in damp woods, along roadsides, and in fields and waste areas in eastern North America from Newfoundland and Ontario south to Georgia and west to Kansas.

Dame’s rocket is an erect, branching plant that may reach 4 feet tall and 18 inches wide. Its roots, according to the English herbalist Gerard, are “slender and threddie”, and its pointed, hairy alternate leaves are “somewhat snipt about the edges”; the lower ones have short stalks and may be as long as 4 inches, while the upper ones are stalkless and smaller. Loose terminal clusters of four-petaled, 3/4-inch-wide lavender, pink, or white flowers bloom in the late spring and early summer. At a casual glance, dame’s rocket may be mistaken for phlox, but phlox’s flowers have five petals. Double-flowered forms are highly prized, but today they are not readily available in the United States. Perhaps that is just as well: the British plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas has described them as “highly temperamental”. The flowers are followed by 4-inch-long, slender seedpods that are filled with pitted oblong brown seeds. The four-petaled flowers and skinny pods are evidence of this herb’s membership in the mustard family.

Uses For Dame's Rocket

Dame’s rocket has been used medicinally to induce sweating, promote urination, and loosen a cough, but no scientific evidence confirms its effectiveness. The leaves, which are rich in vitamin C, have also been used to treat or prevent scurvy; however, in A Modern Herbal (1931), Maud Grieve notes that “a strong dose will cause vomiting” and suggests the leaves as a substitute for the emetic ipecac. According to Hilda Leyel, editor of A Modern Herbal and author of Herbal Delights, the seeds were “said to be a most efficacious cure for stings and bites of serpents and they were sometimes mixed with vinegar to cure freckles.”

Europeans have enjoyed eating young dame’s rocket leaves in salads for their bitter, piquant tang. (Dame’s rocket is closely related to arugula.) The sprouted seeds—if not needed for serpent stings or freckle control—are also edible. The plant when in flower is rumored to be a “gland stimulant” and an aphrodisiac. In the Victorian “language of flowers”, dame’s rocket symbolized deceit because it is fragrant in the evening but scentless—or nearly so—during the day.

Dame’s rocket is a food source for caterpillars as well as a nectar source for butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The flowers are good for cutting and will lend their welcome perfume to the room in which they are placed.

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