If someone gave you a spindly shrub named wintersweet to plant now, you might have second thoughts about going to the effort. It is twiggy, spindly and too big. But on mild days in midwinter it produces clusters of yellow-white blossoms whose fragrance travels many feet. The sweet scent is unexpected and hard to locate, but it fills the heart with the joyful anticipation of spring.
Of all the pleasures that plants bestow, none is more intangible or as powerful as fragrance. And yet, as the wintersweet tells us, it is fleeting.
In this frantic moment of planting and preparation, think of the dimension of scent in selecting new and replacement plants this spring. With a little planning, you can add a range of fragrant plants, hardy and tender, which will elevate your garden into a perfumed paradise across the months and growing seasons.
Spring is the time plants are feverishly blooming and competing for the attention of pollinators, and fragrance is a way to turn a bee’s head. Many bulbs are scented, most obviously the hyacinth, but others are agreeably aromatic, especially daffodils. Among these, the type known as tazettas imbue their spicy scent. (The most famous of these are the indoor paperwhites.) Avalanche is a lovely old variety, with white petals and creamy yellow cups. A similar variety named Geranium has an apricot-orange cup, and is another of my favorites. Jonquils, another kind of daffodil, are also perfectly perfumed. I grow Sailboat and Fruit Cup.
Several fragrant spring shrubs are now doing their thing. For sweet and pungent scent, the daphne cannot be beaten. Daphnes can be short-lived, but the burkwood daphne is reliable and tough, especially when planted in partial shade and in soil that is enriched but free-draining. The classic variety is Carol Mackie, valued not just for its blossom clusters, but also handsome leaf variegation. It stays in bounds, unlike some of the large viburnums, and makes for a great plant by a shaded front entrance. I would also consider the fothergillas for that role. They are not a bluegrass band, but two species of delightful deciduous native shrub: the three-foot dwarf fothergilla and the large fothergilla, which grows to about eight feet after 10 years or so.
Large viburnums have their place, perhaps as a screen for a patio, and while there is nothing subtle about the blooming or fragrance of the koreanspice viburnum, it does the job. Hybrids have been developed and are worth growing as well, namely the Judd and Burkwood viburnums, and the fragrant snowball, whose botanic name is Viburnum x carlcephalum.
The quintessential fragrant shrub of April is the lilac, lovely in flower, but too often rushed by the early heat. Most gardens are too small to warrant a hedge of them, but some of the smaller varieties work well in a shrub border. I have long favored the Meyer lilac variety Palibin as well as a Manchurian lilac variety named Miss Kim.
Roses can be a flower of spring, summer and fall, but in the Washington area the first major flush of reblooming roses occurs from mid-May through June. This is also the long but glorious season of the old-fashioned climbers, ramblers and bushes that bloom just once a year. These include the rugosa rose, the salt-tolerant seaside shrub whose limp petaled flowers have transcendent powers of fragrance. Both Hansa and Roseraie de l’Hay have grown well for me, and bloom early. Among heirloom varieties that I have grown for their fragrance are Charles de Mills, Fantin-Latour, Mme Isaac Pereire, Souvenir de la Malmaison and Maiden’s Blush.
Some modern shrub roses, raised for their reblooming through the season, retain some of the fragrance of the antiques. My advice is go to a nursery where they are sold, in bloom, and smell them. The David Austin English Roses, famed for their fragrance, can perform poorly in the heat and humidity of Washington, though I have had luck with Gertrude Jekyll and Heritage.
At the very beginning of the season, lavenders are still in full bloom. No garden, deck or balcony is complete without a lavender. I used to favor the large French hybrids — Grosso and Provence — and they are still splendid herbs, but I have gone back to the more compact English lavenders of my childhood. I especially like the commonly available Hidcote for its indigo-blue flowers. I cut back the fading flower stalks for rebloom in September.
The single most fragrant plant of July is the true lily, not the daylily, but you have to pick the correct types for maximum effect. A class called oriental lilies and their more modern hybrids can be counted on to add a heady fragrance to the summer garden. Look for LO hybrids such as Triumphator and OT or Orienpet hybrids such as Conca D’Or, a buttery yellow, or Black Beauty, a raspberry black variety with heavily bent back, “recurved,” petals. I grow Altari, Scheherazade, Orania and Anastasia, and the perfume coming from that bed is beyond credence.
Another summer treat is the scent of the shrub named clethra or summersweet, which will work in a shade garden where lilies are unhappy. In a sunnier location, butterfly bush will flower for a similarly long time, though it is not as strong as the clethra. This can be a weedy bush that needs cutting back in spring to develop a compact habit. Also, you should cut off faded flowers to promote reblooming and prevent seeding.
In addition to roses, lavender and butterfly bush, the fall garden is ripe with sweet-smelling annuals and tropicals that have reached maturity. These include the snail vine, which will flower happily from seed to vine over the course of a single season, though its flowering will be greatly increased if it is cut back and kept dormant indoors over the winter. Container-grown tuberoses and ginger-lilies are an olfactory knockout, though hardy plants also scent the late-season garden. Sweet autumn clematis blooms in September, an evergreen shrub named osmanthus blossoms in October. Its tiny white flowers are almost invisible, though that doesn’t seem to matter.
The fragrant flowers of winter come and go, relying on periods of mildness that cannot be predicted. Witchhazel is a good example. Some hybrids are more scented than others, and again the acid test is to sniff them in flower before buying one. Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia has an excellent collection that is well-labeled. The Chinese witchhazel, Hamamelis mollis, is considered the most powerfully fragrant.
Another shrub named edgeworthia, at its edge of hardiness in Washington, is extremely fragrant when it blooms in February and March. This is about the time a glossy-leafed evergreen named sweetbox blooms. Its little white blooms, the size of rice grains, can perfume an entire garden. Along with a wintersweet, of course.
The zone of fragrance differs not only by plant, but time of day, so unless you are planting a whole field of lavender or lilies (not a bad idea) you have to place your scented plant close to where you walk and sit. That means by the patio or the screened porch, along the front walk, on a balcony or deck, near the kitchen door or elevated in raised beds or pots.