VI: Heliotrope

"One whiff, and you'll fear for your very life."

Heliotrope and friend. Photo by Sandra Grünewald / Unsplash
Heliotrope and friend. Photo by Sandra Grünewald / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is sextidi, the 6th of Brumaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate l'héliotrope, a mythical lover of the sun.

Heliotropes used to be more ubiquitous in the public imagination for their scent, their poison, their purported ability to turn toward the sun (they can't), and most of all their vivid purple color. A dye was made from the flower that was named "turnsole" (another reference to the sun-facing properties the flower doesn't have). The dye would render pale blue in ink for illuminated manuscripts, or turn deep red as a food coloring, which would become most known for coloring the rind of a Dutch cheese ... eventually evolving into the red wax on your gouda.

Heliotrope is sweet to the max, sometimes being marketed as "cherry pie flowers." Its scent, long ago synthesized as a chemical called heliotropin, has chameleon-like abilities in the hands of perfume artists, who can bring about its cloudy, baby powder-like aspects, lean into a mouthwatering saccharin scent, or even give it a vanilla pungency. For a long time, heliotrope was mostly associated with perfume.

And death. Most varieties of the flower are poisonous to dogs and farm animals who might accidentally ingest it. (A few heliotropes – the ones without striking blossoms and heady scents – are considered common weeds, and easily get mixed into hay and other harvested grains if the farmer isn't careful.)

The death part must have been on the mind of Richard Washburn Child when he wrote a short story called "A Whiff of Heliotrope" a little over a hundred years ago. This strange little story contains such a simple but compelling plot that it was adapted to film no less than three times in the 25 years after its publication.