Years ago, I was visiting Peru in December when a sweet perfume came drifting across the warm afternoon air. For a moment I was confused, until I realized the smell was none other than the scent of roses. And rounding the corner there they were, a stunning collection of pink, velvety blooms beckoning me over to their fragrant garden.
ON THE SCENT
In the natural world, fragrance attracts pollinators who can help a plant reproduce. And in our world, scent also holds an allure. But in contrast to pollinators, it draws certain people to different plants by seducing the senses. This experience can stir emotions, evoke powerful memories and improve overall well-being.
Lilacs produce one of the best spring scents
Fragrance has always played a key role in the garden. And now, in a growing trend, it is being recognized as a quality worth cultivating all on its own. A fragrant garden adds a new dimension to the landscape. When carefully choreographed, the gradual release of scent over time can enhance our outdoor experience. What is more, it can deepen our appreciation for the individual plants in our garden.
CHOOSING A SITE
As it happens, fragrance plays a part in much of everyday life. Studies show that certain scents can instantly improve a person’s mental and spiritual well-being. This may explain why specific aromatic plants (think lavender!) often induce a sense of calm and relaxation.
Place scented plants along a walkway or by a bench
And why not harness that effect? Plant a group of scented plants near a patio or seating area where they can be quietly experienced. Or, site them close to a window where their aromas can carry inside.
Plant a fragrant garden under a window for a powerful effect
FRAGRANT GARDENS AND MEMORY
At other times, fragrance can evoke memories linked to positive feelings of happiness and well-being. For me, it’s the delicate scent of pansies. Just one whiff instantly transports me back to my childhood. Our neighbor had a walkway edged with purple pansies that fascinated me. And to this day, I can still recall the thrill of those velvety blooms.
Fragrance can evoke memories.
Indeed, even the smallest fragrant garden can spread happiness. For example, siting scented plants along a walkway enables them to release their aromas when people brush by them. This unexpected encounter can produce a powerful effect.
Whatever location you choose for your scented plants, make sure it’s a sunny, well-sheltered site. Enclosed spaces work best because they not only protect delicate blooms but they also help concentrate the plants’ individual fragrances. And this, in turn, heightens their overall effect.
DESIGNING A FRAGRANT GARDEN
So how do you design a fragrant garden? First, make sure to follow the same short-to-tall format of the perennial garden. That is, include a mix of tall, medium and low-growing plants that each complement each other. Above all, make sure to plan for a succession of blooms that balances fragrance along with leaf shape, texture and flower color.
That being said, never fixate on just one scent. This can quickly become overpowering and detract from the overall interest of the garden.
A good rule of thumb is to use taller, scented shrubs as a backdrop to your fragrant garden, or select just one as an anchor. And remember to site medium-sized plants forward of larger shrubs. Most importantly, save low-growing, sweet-scented perennials, annuals and herbs for the front of the garden.
WHAT TO PLANT IN YOUR FRAGRANT GARDEN
Below you’ll find a list of shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs known for their intoxicating scents (most of which I have experience with.) Depending on the size of your garden, you can choose one or a few from each list to create your own custom mix of smells. Remember to plan for a succession of bloom times, which will keep your fragrant garden going all season long. (Click on the links to learn more about each plant.)
Lilac, Syringa cultivars
Korean spice bush, Viburnum carlesii
Mock Orange, Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’
Daphne x transatlantica ‘Blafra’ Eternal Fragrance
Sweet Olive, Osmanthus fragrans ‘Fudingzhu’
Winter Honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima
Camellia, Camellia sasanqua, Camellia lutchuensis hybrids
Sweetbay Magnolia (small tree)
Chinese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis mollis
Sweet Autumn Clematis, Clematis paniculata
Chocolate Cosmos, Cosmos atrosanguineus (Really does smell like chocolate!)
Hosta ‘Honeybells’, Hosta plantaginea
Lemon lily, Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus
Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis
Peony ‘Festiva Maxima’ (white), Eden’s Perfume (pink), Raspberry Sundae (cherry pink)
Scented Geranium, Pelargonium crispum ‘Prince Rupert’
Heliotrope, Heliotropium arborescens
Lavender, Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’
Phlox paniculata ‘Blue Paradise’ (More purple than blue, but highly fragrant)
Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis
Sweet Alyssum, Lobularia maritima Highly fragrant, cool-season annual
Lavender, Lavendula x intermedia Provence
Pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans
Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’
Hyacinth, Hyacinth orientales
Daffodil, Triandrus Narcissus ‘Thalia’
Looking for more? Check out my Instagram to see my latest designs and plant lists. I post seasonally from spring through fall.
(This post was updated February 2022)