Scentsational: The fragrant garden

pinks -  © vjs

pinks - © vjs

You could plant a striking garden without including a single fragrant flower, but why would you want to? Scent is alluring, evocative and highly valued – the perfume industry  will attest to that.

The sweetness of scented blossoms, the citrus notes of certain foliage and the pungent aroma of herbs add an extra dimension to any garden. As you lay plans for a new gardening year, choose plants that will please the nose as well as the eye.

Scent preferences are quite individual so it may take some research to pinpoint which fragrances are most appealing to you. The smell of lilacs, roses and hyacinths are almost universally liked, while the sharp odor of chrysanthemums and marigolds are off-putting to many. Some enjoy the heavy scent of Oriental lilies, while others (including me) find it overwhelming. There’s no right or wrong – it’s all a matter of personal taste.

The next trick is finding plant varieties that haven’t had the fragrance bred out of them. As modern plant breeders strive for brighter colors, bigger size and better disease resistance, scent has disappeared from many species and no one is sure why. Scientists are studying plant genes responsible for scent compounds in flower to try to unravel the mystery.

Experienced gardeners already know that the closer plants remain to their original forms, the more likely they are to retain their traditional scents. Heliotrope, lily-of-the-valley and sweet violets smell much as they always have. On the other hand, intensely bred hybrid tea roses, modern sweet peas and most hostas have lost the fragrances that earlier generations so enjoyed.

Consequently, the most intensely perfumed flowers may not be the brightest and boldest varieties available. In choosing flowers, there’s good sense in blending the old and the new, the scented and scentless in your garden beds.

Floral and foliage scents are more obvious on a still, warm, humid day than on a dry or windy one. Planting your aromatic plants within the shelter of a fence, wall or hedge will keep the fragrance concentrated and more apparent.

Some plants don’t give up their pleasing scents until you have drawn close, burying your nose in their blossoms or using your fingers to crush a few leaves. Other species have potent fragrances that travel quite a distance – plan to separate any that might clash or cancel one another out.

Strong-smelling specimens like roses, lilacs and lavender might be widely spaced along a fragrant path, or shrubs that bloom in different seasons might be arranged in a dense border. There’s nothing wrong with giving fragrant plants of a single kind their own little nook as in a scented rose garden or a bold lilac hedge. Either might be enhanced with plantings of fragrant spring bulbs like the smaller daffodils and any of the hyacinths.

Most plant aromas are at their best in hot sun, but some don’t become apparent until dusk. Keep specimens like nicotiana, night-blooming phlox and moon flower close to the patio where you can enjoy their scent on warm summer evenings or plant them just outside your bedroom window.

Flowers didn’t develop their fragrances to attract humans, who weren’t yet around when most plant species first appeared on the scene. Flowering plants use scents to lure in pollinators, fend off predators and repel insect pests – we are just accidental beneficiaries.

No matter. When you feast your nose on the intoxicating smell of a rose or enjoy the clean, bracing scent of a lilac cluster, when you sense the perfume of azaleas on the spring breezes or revel in the odd, astringent odor of witch hazel, you’ll find fragrance is a bonus that can’t be replaced. You’ll breathe in deeply once, and then again, and say, “Ah, heaven!”

lilacs -   © vjs

lilacs - © vjs

A Compendium of Fragrant Plants


Daffodils, especially jonquilla, tazetta and triandrus varieties like ‘Baby Moon,’ ‘Fruit Cup’ ‘Ice Wings’ and ‘Minnow’

Hyacinths, including grape hyacinth and woodland hyacinth (Hyacinthoides hispanica)

Lilies, including Madonna lily, regale lily and Oriental types


Alyssum; heliotrope; nicotiana (flowering tobacco); moonflower; petunias and sweet pea, especially old-fashioned varieties including ‘Painted Lady,’ ‘America,’ ‘Cupani’ and ‘Matucana’


Daylilies, including ‘Perfect Peach Glory,’ ‘Hyperion,’ ‘Nagasaki,’ ‘Country Melody,’ ‘Royal Eventide,’ ‘Caprican Fiesta,’

German irises ‘After the Dawn,’ ‘Fragrant Lilac,’ ‘Here’s Heaven,’ ‘I’m Pretty,’ ‘In Reverse,’ ‘Mystic Lace,’ and ‘Role Model,’

Herbs, including sage, rosemary, lemon verbena and basil

Hostas, especially ‘Grandiflora’ ‘Fragrant Blue,’ and ‘Guacamole,’

Lily-of-the-valley; lavender; garden pinks

Peonies, including ‘Nymph,’ ‘Sarah Bernhardt,’ ‘Duchess d’ Orleans,’ ‘Auguste Dessert’

Phlox, including tall border types, woodland phlox and moss pinks


Azalea — native deciduous types, including Piedmont and swamp azaleas; hybrids including ‘My Mary,’ ‘Lollipop,’ ‘Mount St. Helens,’ ‘Pink and Sweet,’ ‘Lemon Drop’

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus); Daphne odorata; lilac; mock orange (Philadelphus); summer sweet (Clethra); Viburnum; winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and witch hazel

Roses – especially the alba, rugosa, hybrid musk, Bourbon, English and Romantica roses.

Mail order plant sources

Old House Gardens, 536 W. Third St., Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103. Call 734-995-1486 or go to Antique bulb selections including fragrant varieties.

Plant Delights Nursery, 9241 Sauls Road, Raleigh, NC 27603. Call 919-772-4794 or see Many fragrant flowers and foliage plants.

Select Seeds Antique Flowers, 180 Stickney Hill Road, Union, Conn. 06076. Call 800-684-0395 or visit Old-fashioned scented flowers your grandma would love.


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