Why is fragrance so alluring in the garden? The power of fragrance in memory generally is well known. For example, the smell of a favorite dish brings you right back to childhood, or perhaps a lilac bouquet transports you to your grandmother’s house.
But in the garden, I regard fragrance as adding a magical element that heightens the sensory experience of the place. Of course, you want your garden to be beautiful, arresting even, to the eye. But if you add fragrance, there is a new sweetness or romance that becomes sown in the viewer’s memory.
Secondly, I’m just in awe of fragrance. Assuming I like the fragrance, I’m just dumbstruck with surprise and delight every time — how did it do that?
There are the scents that catch me unaware and send me hunting on hands and knees for the source, such as fresh Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) or the vanilla thrown by sweet box (Sarcoccocca species) from tiny dripping white flowers you have to seek to find.
Some are just unabashedly obvious about it, with large trusses just flinging their deliciousness about. Here I’m thinking of lilacs, lilies, certain clematis, privet (not everyone’s favorite, but it sure is noticeable). Some, like the lilies are best appreciated outdoors — they can be a bit overwhelming in a closed space.
Others make you come to them — like roses. Roses have their own catalog of scents, classified as fruity, floral, myrrh, Old Rose, and tea. Old roses are sumptuous and sweet, myrrh is spicy, and some blend many together, but usually you have to bring your nose to the flower to experience it.
Daffodils also repay close nose work with sweet fragrance, so don’t forget winter in your plans for a fragrant year, to steal the title of Helen Van Pelt Wilson’s book.
Grow a petting zoo
Then there are the ones that hold their scented oils until released by friction. Once I know, it feels like our little secret, like a friend who makes a funny face or accent and I’m saying, “Ooh do the thing again!” In these, the fragrance is hiding in the leaves. People are often surprised to find that the flowers of lavender are not where the magic happens — it’s the leaves.
I keep mental notes about where the pettable shrubs are on my walks around the neighborhood. Some annuals I buy or cultivate every year to ensure fragrance therapy is readily available, like lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora,) and scented geranium Pelargonium ‘Orange Fizz’ — I’m a sucker for citrus scents — and pineapple sage, (Salvia elegans). That last one I may pop in my mouth after enjoying the scent.
The whole mint family fall into this category. There are the ones you think of as mint, nepeta, catmint, hyssops (Agastache or hummingbird mint) and then there are all the sages (salvia), rosemaries, basils, and lavenders — which are all technically the mint family. Some are perennial, some annual, and some are “it depends.” The hyssops alone could be their own fragrance museum, with various cultivars and species showcasing hints of root beer, licorice, and mint.
I’m a sucker for the woodsy-not-quite-skunky scent of white sage, the one that is in sage sticks. It’s borderline hardy here and needs perfect drainage, but I revel in one every chance I get.
Vanilla is another scent I love — I find it so homey and inviting. I get my dose from the sweet box, but also annual alyssum, which throws its scent nicely, and heliotrope — always worth splurging on when you find it. I discovered an antique petunia this year — Petunia axilaris ‘Rainmaster’ — obviously I’m not passing up that name in Seattle — but the fact that it was a fragrant heirloom from 1823 put it over the top and into my basket. You can grow it from seed, but I found it in the specialty annuals section. It’s much taller than most petuniuas but is a welcome greeter in my front door window box.
Melianthus major may be called honeybush by its friends, but when you rub its silvery leaves, it smells straight-up like peanut butter.
Iris pallida has deep purple bloms with a sweet surprise — this is what the makers of grape soda were channeling when they made it. It’s soooo sweet.
I still hope to move one of my pallida to my Melianthus, with some nice signage by the sidewalk for the kids:
“My leaves smell like peanut butter and jelly!”