|White mignonette (Reseda alba)|
It grows throughout the Mediterranean region but is more common in the western part. It can now also be found in the Americas and Australia as an introduced species as well as in most parts of the world as a cultivated garden plant.
In Malta it can be seen growing on walls including old buildings and bastions but not as a garden plant.
It flowers from January to May. The inflorescence, which may take up most of the upper stem, is densely packed with many small creamy-white flowers. Each flower has five or six petals, each of which is divided into three long, narrow lobes, making it appear frilly.
The inflorescence has a symmetrical shape which gives the plant a very attractive appearance even before the flowers are open.
Two species of mignonettes are found in Malta. The most common is the white mignonette which is known in Maltese as denb il-ħaruf because of the shape of its inflorescence, which looks very much like a lamb’s tail.
The yellow mignonette is known as denb il-ħaruf isfar. It has pale yellow flowers but is rare and can be overlooked for the white flowered species.
The mignonettes belong to the reseda family. Reseda is a Latin word meaning to assuage or calm because these species are supposed t have sedative properties.
Another member of this family, the dyer’s rocket, which does not grow in the Maltese islands, was used in Roman times as a sedative and to treat bruises.
A volatile oil was extracted from its roots to be used in perfumery as far back as the first millennium BC but its use came to an end in the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of cheap synthetic dyes.
The white mignonette is the food plant of among other things the bath white. This is a species of butterfly related to the more common large and small whites. The caterpillar is blue with yellow lines on the back and sides and many black spots.
This article was published in The Times on 08.03.2011