Last year, I was walking in Lima on a warm December day when suddenly, a sweet perfume came floating across the air. For a moment I was taken aback, until I realized the smell was none other than the scent of roses. And, rounding the corner there they were; dense clusters of velvety blooms beckoning me into their fragrant, hilltop garden.
On the scent
In the plant world, fragrance aids in survival, directing pollinators to particular flowers that are ready to be pollinated. And in the human world, fragrance is a source of attraction, too. But in lieu of pollinators, it seduces the senses, luring different individuals to different flowers that can stir emotions, evoke powerful memories or provide an overall sense of well-being.
Fragrance has always played an essential 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 is a new style that is adding an exciting dimension to gardening. When carefully choreographed, the gradual release of scent over time can enhance our outdoor experience. It can also deepen our appreciation for the individual plants in our garden.
Choosing a site
A fragrant garden can perform many functions. For starters, it can alter emotions, potentially reducing depression and anxiety while improving quality of life. For many people, a deliberate combination of aromatic plants can bring peace and relaxation, especially when the plants are located close by a patio, on or around a pergola or bordering a seat where they can be quietly appreciated.
Another great location for a fragrant garden is under a window, where it can serve as a transition between garden and house. Here, the garden’s proximity to the home makes harvesting plants easy while allowing their aromas to carry indoors.
Even a small-sized fragrant garden can have a big impact when planted alongside a garden path. As people brush against the scented plants, they release their smells by surprise, making for a powerful experience.
Whatever location you select, make sure to choose a sunny, but sheltered site. Enclosed spaces work best because they protect delicate blossoms while concentrating their individual scents, heightening the effect of the garden.
A well-designed fragrant garden follows the same format as the perennial garden: that is, it consists of a mix of tall, medium and low-growing plants that complement each other. When creating your garden, make sure to plan for a staged succession of blooms that balances fragrance along with leaf shape, texture and flower colors. Never concentrate on just one scent, which can quickly become overpowering and detract from the overall interest of the garden.
Choose taller, scented shrubs as a backdrop to your fragrant garden, or select just one as an anchor. Site medium-sized plants forward of the shrubs and save low-growing sweet-scented perennials, annuals and herbs for the front of the garden.
What to plant
Following is a list of shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs known for their intoxicating scents (most of which I’ve had 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)
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
Hyacinth, Hyacinth orientales
Daffodil, Triandrus Narcissus ‘Thalia’
Want to learn more? Check out this great book by Rosemary Verey, “The Scented Garden,” my go-to- reference for all fragrant plants and how to combine them into beautiful compositions.