Everything You Need to Know About Heliotrope Flowers

Heliotrope, also known as the cherry pie plant, has been a popular cottage garden flower since the Victorian era. With delicate, yet showy, clusters of purple, blue and white blooms, this half-hardy perennial draws beneficial pollinators to the landscape. Heliotrope blossoms are prized for their delicious fragrance, perfuming the air with the scent of vanilla and, as the plant’s nickname suggests, fresh-baked pie. In the language of flowers, heliotrope symbolizes devotion and eternal love. Here we’ll take you through everything you need to know about the rich history and meaning of heliotrope flowers, their uses and benefits, popular types, and cultural significance around the world today. 

Heliotrope Flower Meaning & Symbolism – The Essentials

In Greek mythology, the sun god Helios scorned the nymph Clytie. After she died of a broken heart, Helios transformed her into a heliotrope. Her flowers turn upward to follow the sun as he traverses the sky each day. That’s why heliotrope’s fragrant blossoms symbolize devotion in the language of flowers.

About Heliotrope Flowers

About Heliotrope Flowers

Heliotrope Flowers – Family, Genus, and Taxonomy

Heliotropium is a genus of flowering plants that belongs to the borage family (Boraginaceae), also known as the forget-me-not family. Heliotropum contains about 325 species. The cherry pie plant, or H. arborescens, is the most common species grown in the Americas and Europe.

Botanical Characteristics, Colors, Fragrances, and Toxicity

Heliotrope grows as an annual in cooler climates and a perennial or half-hardy perennial in warmer climates. In its natural habitat, it grows up to six feet tall and eight feet wide.

Its dark green foliage features prominent veins. Ovate leaves are arranged alternately and feel rough to the touch.

Heliotrope blooms in summer or fall with clusters of purple, blue, white or pink blossoms. Buds emerge a dark purple color, then lighten as they open and age.

Blooms are trumpet-shaped, and set on a coiled stem. Heliotrope flowers have a wonderful fragrance that’s likened to vanilla, sugar, or even freshly baked cherry pie.

A Toxic Beauty:

Every part of the heliotrope plant is toxic to humans and can cause digestive problems or liver damage when ingested in large amounts. When ingested over a period of time, heliotrope has been known to cause severe liver damage to horses.

Popular Heliotrope Flower Types, Species, and Cultivars

There are more than 320 species in the Heliotropium family. The most common type grown as an ornamental is H. arborescens. Popular cultivars include:

  • ‘Fragrant Blue’: this variety has strongly scented flowers that turn deep blue when temperatures drop
  • ‘Marine’: a compact variety that grows to 14 inches tall and blooms with dark purple blossoms

Other species of heliotrope include:

  • Blue heliotrope (H. amplexicaule): A drought-tolerant species indigenous to and cultivated in South America; this blue-flowering plant has naturalized in Australia, where it’s considered an agricultural weed
  • European heliotrope (H. europaeum): Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, this annual grows to about 15 inches tall, with white flowers and a strong, unpleasant scent
  • Indian heliotrope (H. indicum): This Asian native reaches 19 inches in height and blooms with light purple and white flowers atop a dramatic green calyx
  • Salt heliotrope (H. curassavicum): A salt-tolerant ground cover that spreads to four feet wide and produces white flowers year-round

Etymological Meaning

“Heliotrope” comes from the Greek for sun, helios, and trepein, or “to turn.” The name refers to heliotrope flowers’ tendency to turn and face toward the sun throughout the day.

Another common name for the flowers, the Middle English turnsole, also means to turn toward the sun.

What Regions are Heliotrope Flowers Native To?

What Regions are Heliotrope Flowers Native To

Flowering plants in the Heliotropium genus grow around the world, from the Americas to Asia, Africa to Europe. The common ornamental H. arborescens is native to subtropical regions of Peru.

When are Heliotrope Flowers in Season?

Heliotropes flower during the summer. Clusters of fragrant, small flowers in shades of purple, white or pink appear atop curving, coiled stems.

In USDA Zones 10 and 11, heliotropes can be grown as perennials. In other, cooler, zones, the plants are grown as annuals.

Uses and Benefits of Heliotrope Flowers

Uses and Benefits of Heliotrope Flowers

Heliotrope Flowers in Herbalism and Medicine

In 16th century Europe, the “Doctrine of Signatures” held that plants that looked or behaved in ways that resembled parts of the human body could have medicinal effects on that body part. At the time, the sun was thought to control the heart, breathing, and vertebrae.

Plants that “followed the sun,” such as heliotrope, were thought to affect bodily functions such as circulation and breathing and were used in medicinal treatments. Today, it’s known that heliotrope contains compounds that can harm the liver. Ingesting any part of the H. arborescens as medical treatment isn’t recommended.

However, heliotrope tinctures may be used topically to treat skin ailments, such as warts, calluses, wounds, and infections. Essential oils may be used for massage.

The species known as Indian heliotrope (H. indicum) is an ingredient in the traditional medicine of the Philippines. Juice from the foliage is used to treat ulcers, wounds, and conjunctivitis.

Toxicity, Bee Friendliness, and Pollination

All parts of H. arborescens are toxic and can cause liver damage over time. Humans, dogs, cats, horses, and livestock should not ingest heliotrope.

Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are drawn to heliotrope, thanks to its fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers. Heliotrope makes a good addition to a pollinator garden.

Heliotrope Flower Meaning & Symbolism

Heliotrope Flower Meaning & Symbolism

Common Heliotrope Flower Colors

Heliotrope flowers most commonly bloom in shades of purple. However, blossoms may also be blue, white, or pink. In the language of flowers, heliotrope is traditionally symbolic of eternal love and devotion.

The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Heliotrope Flowers

The symbolism behind heliotrope began with a Greek myth. The water nymph Clytie was in love with the sun god, Helios. Unfortunately for Clytie, he just wasn’t that into her and left her for another.

The heart-broken Clytie pined for Helios, sitting in one place and turning only her head to watch his chariot travel across the sky each day. Eventually, she wasted away, and Helios transformed her into a flower.

The heliotrope turns its “face” to follow the path of the sun, just as Clytie once did. To the Victorians, the heliotrope was thus a sign of devotion and eternal love.

The story has also been told and retold in poetry and art through the centuries, in works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Elizabeth Colomba’s paintings, and sculpture by George Frederic Watts.

Suitable Gifting Occasions for Heliotrope Flowers

Suitable Gifting Occasions for Heliotrope Flowers

Heliotrope is a lovely floral gift for almost any event. Its brilliant color and luscious scent make it perfect for birthdays, get well, congratulations, and other occasions. Heliotrope is an appropriate flower for weddings, anniversaries, and romantic gestures, too, as it symbolizes love and devotion.

The flowers can be given in bouquets or arrangements. It’s also a great choice for decorative pots or in container gardens.

How to Care for Fresh-Cut Heliotrope Flowers

To keep heliotrope flowers fresh, cut stems on the diagonal and immediately immerse the stems in hot water. Singe the cut ends briefly with a candle or match to stop latex from flowing.

Add floral preservative to vase water. When displaying cut heliotropes, keep them away from windows, drafts, vents, and gas stovetops.


Heliotropes contribute delicious fragrance and colorful blossoms to the garden landscape. Thanks to their rich symbolism, these lovely flowers also make a meaningful floral gift for family and loved ones.

Heliotrope Flowers FAQ

Are heliotrope plants poisonous?

All parts of the heliortope plantare toxic and can cause liver damage over time. Humans, dogs, cats, horses, and livestock should not ingest heliotrope.

What does heliotrope mean?

In the language of flowers, heliotrope is traditionally symbolic of eternal love and devotion.

What does heliotrope smell like?

Heliotrope flowers have a wonderful fragrance that’s likened to vanilla, sugar, or even freshly baked cherry pie.

Does heliotrope like sun or shade?

Heliotrope will thrive in light conditions ranging from partial shade to full sun. For particularly warm growing zones it’s recommended to provide some afternoon shade for heliotrope where possible.

When does heliotrope bloom?

Heliotropes bloom throughout the summer months.


Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.

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