“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.”
from The Herbal or General History of Plants
by John Gerard 1597
Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) is coming into bloom, and soon it will grace the roadsides and woodland edges with its lustrous purple and white flowers. It is often confused with Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata), and, at first glance, it is easily understood. They are similar in habit with showy clusters of white, pink and purple flowers atop erect 2’ to 4’ stems. However, dame’s rocket is a member of the mustard family or Cruciferae, and aside from arugula, her relatives include radish, wintercress, cabbage and broccoli. They all share the distinction of having flowers with 4 petals that form the shape of a cross. (Garden Phlox blooms much later in the summer and its flower has five petals.) Seeds are produced in long slender fruits called siliques; some growing as long as four inches, making for copious seed production.
Its genus name Hesperis is derived from the Latin hesperius: of the West, of the evening, possibly because it releases its sweet and spicy clove-like scent at nightfall. Additionally, several of the common names by which it is known - Dames’s Rocket, Dame’s Violet and Mother-of-the-Evening all relate to women, alluding its species name matronalis: pertaining to the Roman festival of the matrons.
Dame’s Rocket is native to the Mediterranean region and central Asia, but because of its value as an ornamental, it was introduced to European gardens where it ran wild in rich shady soil. It was brought to this country in the 17th century where it also naturalized along roadsides, stream banks and woodland edges throughout much of North America from Newfoundland and Ontario south to Georgia and west to the coast.
I consulted The Herbal or General History of Plants by John Gerard (first published in London in 1597) and found it listed under the name Dames Violets or Queens Gillofloures, where he remarked that it was grown in gardens “for the beauty of their floures.” and “The distilled water of the floures hereof is counted to be a most effectuall thing to procure a sweat,” implying that it was used to help break a fever. As to the common name of rocket, I was perplexed. Surely there were no rocket-ships in the days of Gerard! I hunted around to see if I could find the origin of its name. Finally, I looked the dictionary and learned it is derived from the French roquette, or what we know today as arugula.
Though considered an invasive species by some, I welcome Dame’s Rocket every Spring as she lights up the woodland edges with her festive blossoms, providing nectar for hummingbirds, moths and butterflies, and fragrance for the soul.
May 22, 2005
Dame's Rocket, close up