Immortelle is a plant native to the Mediterranean coastal regions of both southern Europe and northern Africa. It bears the scientific genus name Helichrysum, but within this family contains a wide variety of different species. All are closely related and are prized both in gardening, culinary, and cosmetic use. These plants are characterized by bright yellow flowers that bloom for the better part of each year.
The exact reason why plants in the Helichrysum family are called “immortelle," or at times “everlasting,” is unknown, but there are two prevailing theories. One is that the blooms last for an unusually long time. Flowers typically bloom in late winter, and remain fragrant and colorful through the first frost in the fall. When cut, the flowers also dry almost perfectly preserved. Dried arrangements can keep looking fresh for months or more.
Another theory relates to the plant’s cosmetic uses. Immortelle essential oils have long been prized for restoring the elasticity of skin and have been used as a skin tonic for treating wounds and scrapes since in ancient times. The oils from the flowers have long been believed to restore a youthful look, as well. Many cosmetics products containing immortelle oils are marketed as anti-aging or age-defying, often with attendant promises of restored youth.
The flower’s blooms make it a garden favorite all over the world. Growing immortelle is simple in most environments, and the plants will take root in a variety of soils and climates. The plants generally prefer arid, dry environments with thin to rocky soil, but can adapt relatively easily to most conditions. Planting immortelle is common both indoors and out, and it is generally known as a hardy plant that is hard to kill.
Immortelle also has a number of culinary uses. Its leaves smell distinctly of Indian curry powder, leading many to believe that these leaves form the base of curry dishes. This is not in fact the case: the smell does not usually translate into actual taste, and no plants in the Helichrysum genus are native to the Indian subcontinent. The leaves are popular flavor additives to a range of meals in other parts of the world, however.
Cooks on the island of Sicily, just south of Italy, are some of the most voracious consumers of culinary immortelle. The variety of plant that grows there is known as Helichrysum italicum. Like most other variations, it imparts a strong flavor, but is rarely actually consumed. More often, it is used as a simmering agent or roasting flavor, and removed just before serving.
Nearly all parts of the plant are edible, no matter which species is at issue. Even when cooked, however, the plant generally carries a bitter taste and has been known to upset the stomach in large doses. For this reason, it is usually used for simmering, then discarded before serving and sharing.