Surprising Scents and Hidden Fragrances Lend an Air of Mystery

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, June 23, 2007

Most of us are aware of the lovely smells of such familiar flowers as lilacs, hyacinths and roses. But you can also bring fragrance to your garden using less obvious flowers and foliage.

I like designing hidden fragrance. The silvery white blossoms of fragrant elaeagnus in fall or sweetbox ( Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) in spring are barely noticeable, but their perfume drenches the air when they are in bloom. It adds enjoyment to the landscape: People tend to search for the sweet smell.

Elaeagnus is a disease- and deer-resistant, shade-tolerant, broadleaf evergreen shrub. A single plant is enough. It's best planted in a woodland garden as an accent along a path. It's happy in shade, sun, moisture and drought. It can grow eight feet wide with some sun. The flower in fall is difficult to see, but the wonderful smell makes it a joy to have in the garden.

Sweetbox is a subshrub, reaching 12 to 24 inches in height, depending on climate and location. This slow-spreading, shade-tolerant, woody plant will colonize a shady site. Spreading by sucker growth, it makes a great ground cover in a woodland garden. Then in March and April, the flowers open at the base of the leaves. You barely notice the sweetbox, and you find visitors to the garden smelling the camellia, azalea, flowering quince or any flower they see in bloom without realizing that the pleasant scent is emanating from the garden floor.

The hundreds of varieties of hosta, an early-leafing perennial, are usually grown for their showy foliage. A hosta species that I especially like just for its fragrant, large, bell-shaped white flowers on long scapes above its light-green leaves is honeybells ( Hosta plantaginea).

The evergreen fragrant osmanthus ( O. heterophyllus) performs well in partial sun as a barrier plant and produces sweet flowers in fall. It's hidden behind foliage, so you can barely see it. The excitement is the aroma.

Holly is another plant with tiny but fragrant flowers. Many have a sweet smell that comes as a surprise to people who first notice them.

I enjoy the fragrance of Virginia sweetspire ( Itea virginica) in spring and summer. It is a native of the eastern United States and was introduced for sale at garden centers in 1744. A low-growing, long-flowering plant, it has sweet-smelling blooms and is four feet in height, growing in sun or partial shade and in wet or dry soil. Its display of maroon fall foliage is outstanding and can hold for weeks.

Summersweet ( Clethra alnifolia) blooms in summer. Native witch hazel ( Hamamelis virginiana) is a fragrant native shrub that flowers in November.

Deciduous azaleas, many of them native plants, have sweet-smelling flowers and attract butterflies in late spring and early summer.

Flowers to perfume gardens in winter include Chinese and vernal witch hazels. They flower in February. A yellow-flowering hybrid called Arnold Promise grows to 12 feet in height and width, with long-lasting, fragrant blossoms. It can be planted now in sun or partial shade.

With some plants, the fragrance is in the foliage.

Edge a flower bed in sun with lavender. The foliage will offer the fragrance 12 months a year, especially when it grows over the edge of the planting bed and brushes your leg or is bruised as you walk past.

Spicebush ( Lindera benzoin) is native to the mid-Atlantic region. I enjoy bruising the leaf of this shrub whenever I see one, usually when I am walking in Rock Creek Park. It has a refreshing, spicy, fruity fragrance.

Calycanthus is another native shrub that has a tremendously spicy fragrance year-round. The foliage and stems have a citrus smell that is most refreshing. It must be pruned to be kept in bounds or be planted where it can spread to its mature eight feet in height and width.

I also love rosemary, especially the one growing in our garden that has flowered the past two winters. Use rosemary ( Rosmarinus officinalis) to soften the sharp line of a wall, steps or a patio. This evergreen shrub will flop and cascade over a wall or rock or can be sheared into a low hedge. It's always remarkable to me how much fragrance it exudes when brushed. It's also a treat to be able to add sprigs to potatoes or chicken in your oven. One cultivar that's hardier in this area is a hybrid named Arp. It will grow into a two- to three-foot-tall shrub with mild enough winters.

Mint ( Mentha) might be too invasive to grow among other ornamentals, so be sure to contain it. Golden mint works wonderfully as a perennial container planting, and Corsican mint ( M. requienii) is only a half-inch high and has a strong peppermint fragrance. It thrives in any moist, bright nook you might find in the garden, in a rock wall, between patio steps or in a knothole of a tree.

Thyme ( Thymus) is available in more than 400 species, and once you experience its strong fragrance, you will want to collect them. Lemon thyme, caraway thyme, camphor thyme and creeping thyme are a few examples. Creeping or woolly thymes are great for planting in spaces between walls and on walks and patios.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

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