Sandy’s Garden – Sweet Sultan ... the missing ruler

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From time to time, I delight in browsing through a slim booklet which I bought many years ago and which I am delighted to include in my horticultural library.

‘The Gardener’s Monthly Directions’ was first in 1688 ‘‘for Thomas Dring, at the Harrow, over against the Inner Temple-gate in Fleet Street’’, to quote the inscription verbatim.

My copy is not, of course, an original but is a 1980 facsimile of the 1688 edition from the library of Traquair House at Innerleithen.

And, browsing through the entries for this month of June, I learned that, among the ornamental plants and flowers now in season – in June 1688 – is, or perhaps was, Sultan’s Flower.

Sultan’s Flower? It was not a name that rang a bell and I was tempted to find out more about this unknown plant.

Well, first off, I failed to find any reference to it in any of my volumes dealing with native British plants or wildflowers, this latter category often embracing plants that have been brought to these islands over the centuries as garden plants but which have ‘escaped’ to use the technical term and have become naturalised in this country.

The Internet revealed that Sultan’s Flower, also known as Sweet Sultan – and, no, that name didn’t appear in the books I had consulted earlier – is nowadays Amberboa moschata, having previously been called Centaurea moschata.

The term Amberboa comes from the Turkish name for the plant and Centaurea is a version of the Greek name for the same plant, the second part of either name – moschata – meaning ‘musk-scented.’

So far, so good, for we now know that this plant was grown in British gardens in the seventeenth century and earlier for its sweet scent.

I learned next that Sweet Sultan is a member of the aster family – the Compositae – which includes ageratum, aster, chrysanthemum, sunflower, zinnia and, perhaps surprisingly, lettuce.

It is native to Southwest Asia, which explains its common name, though its relationship to lettuce raises the question as to whether it was once grown for its leaves as a salad vegetable. No, it wasn’t; it was grown in the flowerbeds, where is reached a height of something of the order of ¾ of a metre, or 2½ feet in old money.

Nor was it grown in the British Isles for any known or alleged medicinal properties, though it may have been imported to China for some such reason; here it was grown for its flowers and its scent.

And then I chanced on an internet entry from a fellow-investigator.

“Sweet Sultan is listed as fragrant and I understand it to be an old-fashioned, annual member of the Centaurea family. I have tried to get seed and have asked my sister in England if she could track it down, but no joy. I have never seen plants anywhere, only read about it here and there. Is it available, if so where and how? Is it making a come-back or does it not exist any more except in old gardening books?”

And, yes, it is possible to buy seed. The Internet, that fount of so much knowledge, reveals that Thompson & Morgan, one of the oldest British seed merchants, still stocks seeds, although I suspect you will have to buy them from the firm’s catalogue and are unlikely to find any in the racks of flower seeds at your local garden centre.

But two questions remain unanswered. Why has this one-time cottage garden favourite fallen totally out of favour? And, even more curiously, why did a once-widely-grown cottage garden plant not escape from gardens and become naturalised in the British countryside? I have not found any answers to these obvious questions and conclude that Sweet Sultan became the missing ruler when it was overthrown in some secret garden putsch!