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Fragrant Plants Perfume the Garden Air
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow



Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).


April 23, 2000

Planting for fragrance is a garden design technique that is often overlooked by gardeners in their quest for spectacular visual effects, but remember that many fragrant plants are also beautiful to look at and they definitely add an extra element of enjoyment to gardens. The choice of fragrant plants is a personal one and you often won't know if a particular smell (spicy, fruity, minty) appeals to you until you experience it. Before you buy, take some time to "smell the roses" and other fragrant plants; bury your nose in blossoms, or gently rub aromatic leaves of most herbs, scented geraniums, or bee balm, for example, to release their fragrance. Do this discreetly (!) in the gardens of friends, public gardens, or local nurseries. When you visit your local nursery to select plants and you aren't sure which cultivar is the best bet for fragrance, remember the words fragrans or odoratum in the botanical name provide a clue. Generally speaking cultivars with single rows of petals or naturally occurring doubles are more fragrant than hybridized doubles (during hybridization the second row of petals generated replaces a plant's oil-producing parts). Another rule of thumb is the lighter the flower colour, the stronger the scent. Usually white blossoms are the most strongly perfumed, followed by off-white, pink, mauve, yellow and purple. Blue, orange or red flowers usually have little or no scent. However, as with every rule, there are exceptions to this one. In the case of roses, it is the red ones that are the most strongly scented. Finally, plants that bloom early in the spring or late in the fall usually are very fragrant to attract pollinators that are otherwise relatively inactive and disinterested at those times. A bit of prudent research into book and catalogue descriptions, word-of-mouth recommendations, and experience over time will help you sniff out the less obvious choices. Once purchased, place fragrant plants in areas sheltered from the wind and where they may be easily appreciated - beside a path, under a window that opens, or in containers next to a favourite seating area. Plant like-scented specimens together, but locate plants with differing scents sufficiently far apart that their perfumes don't clash or detract from each other. Too many different scents in a small space can be overwhelming and even unpleasant!

Perennial and Annual Favourites:

Roses are probably the best known plants for fragrance in the garden. Many of the tender roses (those that do not over-winter well in Calgary) smell wonderful; among the hardy shrub roses that are sweetly perfumed are 'J.P. Connell', 'Martin Frobisher', 'Henry Hudson', 'Simon Fraser', and 'Henry Kelsey'. Roses can be planted in a bed of their own or included in an established flower bed. The following annuals and perennials are wonderful, fragrant additions to the garden: cottage pinks, carnations, sweet Williams, sweet alyssum, mignonette, annual candytuft and lupins, verbena, peonies, heliotrope, Russian sage, and garden phlox, lily-of-the-valley, and sweet woodruff.

You can also try growing annual sweet peas as a vertical accent in the garden; the purple varieties of the old-fashioned Spencer-type sweet peas are the most fragrant.

Bulbs:

Fragrant, spring-flowering hardy bulbs deserve a place in perennial borders or naturalized in a woodland setting. Some daffodils and tulips impart a delicate fragrance to the air, as do grape hyacinths, honey-scented snowdrops, and the diminutive Iris reticulata. Martagon and trumpet lilies grow form hardy bulbs and provide reliable colour and fragrance all summer long. Exotic tender bulbs (those that do not survive Calgary winters) are a must for the fragrant garden; their heady and unfamiliar scents can be intoxicating. Look for freesia, peacock orchid, baboon flower, sea daffodil, or spider flower at your local garden center in early spring.

Trees and Shrubs:

Many evergreens (pine, spruce, and fir) have a pleasant resinous scent, especially on hot, humid days. Balsam poplar, Russian olive, hawthorn, ornamental crabapples, and Nanking cherry are also fragrant, as are lilac shrubs, mock orange, honeysuckle and some daphnes (of borderline hardiness here).

Plants with Scented Foliage:

No fragrant planting scheme is complete without a good collection of herbs. Their leaves need to be pinched or rubbed gently to release their scented oils, so plant them within easy reach. Choose from parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, dill, rue, tarragon, chives, lemon verbena, borage, curry plant - the list is endless. Other plants with aromatic foliage include scented geraniums, lavender cotton, bee balm, chrysanthemums, and wintergreen.

Night-scented Plants:

If you are away from home all day, why not take advantage of the many plants that wait until nightfall to release their fragrance? These include sweet rocket, evening (night) scented stocks, evening primrose, nicotiana (especially Nicotiana sylvestris), four o'clocks, blue-flowered petunias, and species lilies. Honeysuckles are also their most fragrant at nightfall.

Liesbeth Leatherbarrow is a freelance garden writer who has enjoyed spending the last twenty years mastering the techniques of Chinook zone gardening in Calgary, Alberta. Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds), which will be available in bookstores in November, 1999.

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