C. cheiri. Wallflower. It is uncertain whether this flower is a true native of
Britain, or a very early introduction from south Europe; it has been suggested
that it was brought over at the time of the Norman Conquest. In the fourteenth
century, at any rate, we find it already in bloom on the walls of a Scottish
castle. Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of March, was betrothed to heir of King
Robert III of Scotland, but fell in love with the son of a border chieftain, young
Scott of Tushielaw. Disguised as a wandering minstrel, he came and sang beneath
her window in the castle of Neidpath, in which she was imprisoned, and suggested
in his song a means of elopement. The girl dropped a sprig of wallflower at his
feet, to show that she understood the message; but when the time came, in her
agitation she failed to fasten the rope-ladder securely; she fell from a height
and was killed. Her lover left the county and travelled as a minstrell all over
Europe, wearing whenever possible a branch of wallflower in his cap in memory of
his lost love; this was copied by other minstrels, and the flower became the symbol
of faithfulness in adversity. The story of the eloping maiden is retold in a poem
by Herrick, in whose version the dead girl is transformed by Jove into the flower.
It had a confusing number of old names, including Cheiry of Keiry, Sweet William, Heart's ease, Yealowe Violet, Bee-flower and Yellow Stock Gilloflower. The Geleflower, Gilofre or Gillofer was the carnation; the Stock Gilloflower was what we now call the stock; and the Yellow Stock Gilloflower was the wallflower. It is easy to see the connection between the two last, but the association with the carnation is more obscure - it was based only on the similarity of their perfume. The wallflower was also known as the Chevisaunce or Cherisaunce, an old word for 'comfort' - a name that might well be revived; for, as Hanbury points out, 'to call a plant a Wall-Flower is . . . ridiculous, because many old walls in one part or another exhibit in bloom a no very inconsiderable share of the flowering tribe'. Cheiranthus means 'hand-flower', and in the Middle Ages the flower was carried in the hand at festivals on account of its scent and cordial properties; but even the enthusiastic early herbalists were unable to ascribe to it any great medicinal powers. 'The leaves stamped with a little bay salt, and bound about the wrests of the hands, taketh away the shaking fits of the Ague' is the most Gerard can say; Tournefort adds that 'The distilled water of the Flowers . . . is said to cleanse the Blood, comfort the invard Parts, ease Pains and beget a chearful Disposition.' Modern homeopaths are said to use it for the deafness caused by the cutting of wisdom-teeth.
Wallflowers were much loved by our ancestors on account of their sweet scent. Bacon in his essay on Gardens says that they are 'very delightful to be set under a parlour or lower chamber window', and Parkinson that 'the sweetnesse of the flowers causeth them to be generally used in Mosegayes and to deck up houses'. Parkinson grew six varieties, including three doubles, one of them a double red, but, strangely enough, no single red. Perhaps this was the famous Bloody Warrior thought to have been only recently lost to cultivation. Rea, thirty-five years later, had four doubles, also a Great Single Wallflower, whose golden flowers were, he says, 'some of them as broad as half-a-crown'. One of the old doubles that still survives is the miniature yellow one now known as Harpur Crewe, which was rescued from oblivion and propagated at the end of the nineteenth century by the Rev. Henry Harpur Crewe, rector of Drayton Beauchamp. Earlier in the century the Russian and German varieties of wallflower were much admired and seed of them was sent every year to England.
The blatant orange Siberian Wallflower, (formerly known as Cheiranthus allionii) is, I am glad to say, not a true wallflower but an Erysimum. It is a hybrid, and was perpetrated,, though not intentionally, by a nurseryman called John Marshall of Limburn in 1847.