Wave a peppermint stick under someone’s nose and they’ll likely say, “Smells like Christmas!” Or pop open a can of cherry soda and right away, they’ll remember the cooler in the back of the bowling alley on a hot summer day. That’s the power of your olfactory senses, where the nose experiences a fragrance and the brain processes instant memories in reaction.
In the garden, fragrances can be used to recall times past, as when you plant the same musky rose that grew at your elementary school. Each time your children inhale its perfume, you’ve planted a memory to share with them. Sweet smelling plants can have practical value, as well. Just ask anyone who’s ever enjoyed the smell of autumn clematis or japanese honeysuckle growing wild next to an apartment building dumpster.
When planning a garden to include fragrances, be bold. Just as your soap, body powder, and other toiletries seem to come together to smell “like you”, a collection of plants will not overpower each other. Different plants have more intense scents at different times of day (and night), as well as at different times of the year. Seldom will they even smell at the same time, much less conflict with each other, no matter how many you plant in the same area.
You expect mint to smell like spearmint gum, but who would imagine there would be a plant called banana shrub, that does, indeed smell like Chiquita’s best? Scented plants amuse their gardeners, but that’s not their mission. All fragrant plants exist to attract appropriate pollinators to insure their survival. Those few that bloom in winter, like witch hazel and sasanqua, do so for the benefit of the few bees busy then.
One gardener’s favorite scent is another’s repulsion. Check with your spouse before planting any strongly odiferous shrub outside the bedroom window. But do take advantage of prevailing breezes and allow a mutual favorite to waft in. If you both like them, the heady scent of lilacs can be quite inspiring. Be aware of the difference in fragrances when you take flowers from the garden into the house. Ventilation and warm air can hasten their aging, and it’s often the smell that goes first. Not everyone can be in the same room with hyacinths after the first few days. The flowers, like stock, change their scent long before the flowers fade. Make sure your friend appreciates strong perfume before you gift her with a pot of forced Dutch bulbs.
The nose knows; pick your favorite scents and plant the garden with all of them. As our appreciation of the power of fragrance grows, so do the resources for finding well-adapted plants to grow in every area. For more lists of fragrant plants, consult plant encyclopedias.
Annuals: stock and carnation in clove scents; marigolds and calendula for spicy, nose-wrinkling aroma; petunias, pinks, and sweet peas with subtle, dusky smells
Perennials: garden phlox and true lavendar for old-fashioned powder smell; gingers and hostas for tropical perfume; dianthus, sweet william, and buddleias for clove scents;
Herbs: rosemary to clear the sinuses, thyme to whet your appetite, chamomile for clean, fresh scent, chives whose leaves smell strong and flowers sweet
Bulbs: daffodil is musky, hyacinth deeply so, narcissus crisp but very sweet, and freesia a clean scent
Vines: carolina jasmine is delicate but longlasting, wisteria has a heady aroma, moonvine almost sickly sweet, white lady banks rose for classic scent
Shrubs: fragrant daphne, fruity sweetshrub, strong-scented viburnum, lilac unmistakabe, exbury azaleas spicy yet subtle, winter honeysuckle sweet at a distance, fresh yet biting mock orange
Trees: citrusy mimosa, black locust with fragrance like sweetpeas, sweet bay magnolia like lemons, sweet olive’s dark perfume, flowering plum, apple, and crabapple trees that smell like their fruit, littleleaf linden so spicy, royal paulownia almost like vanilla
Plant fragrant plants where you can appreciate them, like a lemon tree in a container that stays on the deck in summer and indoors all winter. Put your favorites and those that are lightly scented like lemon thyme and lantana up close, but save the dramatic aromas of gardenias, glory bower, and ligustrum for a safe distance from places you like to sit. Line a path with fragrant alyssum, or a fence with golden honeysuckle.
In the garden, fragrance draws or repels creatures of all sizes. Night pollinating moths are drawn to a moonvine’s aroma as surely as you are to your favorite rose. If, that is, you like the fragrance of roses; after all, every scent is in the nose of the beholder.
This is the unedited version of an article that appeared in Garden Almanac, a publication of GroGroup.