Plants That Burst With Fragrance

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, November 15, 2008

A neighbor stopped by last weekend holding a piece of shrub with a dainty, sweet-smelling flower on it. His wife walked past the plant daily and absolutely had to know what is was. Fragrance does that to people.

Experiences in the landscape go far beyond the visual. We also smell the musky odor of fallen leaves on a forest floor crunching underfoot, detect the aroma of common witch hazel in the late autumn air or walk through a spring breeze that is wafting the scent of hyacinths. Or, simply, we stop to smell a rose.

Watching people search for a pleasant smell in the air is fun, especially in fall when they least expect to find fragrant flowers. The shrub that my neighbor found so alluring was spiked elaeagnus (E. pungens). It's still in bloom in some places. The tiny flower is often lost under the shrub's one- to two-inch diameter evergreen leaves, but the fragrance drenches the air. This fall it held its blossoms for a long time, and the sweet smell was quite noticeable. It should be grown in some shade. Low sunlight keeps the size a manageable four to five feet. In full sun it can grow 15-feet tall.

Another evergreen shrub that is shade tolerant and drenches the air with fragrance in autumn is fragrant osmanthus (O. heterophyllus). It looks almost like an evergreen holly. The flower is concealed under the holly-looking leaves, but the wonderful sweet smell that wafts across the garden from this small flower is certainly not concealed. It blooms through fall. A hybrid I like is osmanthus goshiki. Its mottled cream and green foliage brightens a shady garden, especially in winter.

Herbaceous lavender, rosemary or thyme will produce a delightful bouquet on your hands if you brush the foliage as you pass it. The aroma of sweet alyssum in a window box or hanging basket by the front door is carried by its fragrant flowers through cooler fall temperatures. If planted in the ground, it often returns from seed in spring.

Appreciation of fragrant plants can be traced as far back as 3000 B.C. in China and 2700 B.C. in Egypt. Aromatic flowers and plants, and the oils extracted from them, have been used as ornaments, medicines, seasonings and foods, and in cultural traditions and religious rites throughout history. In the Dark Ages, other than castles and walls, the landscape was almost devoid of garden design, yet monks continued to cultivate fragrant herb gardens for medicinal use. England carried this passion for fragrance gardens into the 2oth century, and much can be learned from them about designing the garden with a full complement of fragrances.

Several shrubs with fragrant foliage that are easy to grow and will make you want to grab a leaf or stem and bruise it for the sweet smells are common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) and spicebush. Common sweetshrub is a native plant that can grow 10-feet high and wide or larger. If it grows too vigorously, prune hard annually, after flowering, if used in smaller gardens. Be sure to get sweetshrub from a nursery or garden center when it is in flower. There can be a tremendous variation in the smell of the bloom. Some are malodorous. The native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is quite shade tolerant and a pleasure to discover on a hike in the forest because of the spicy leaves.

Herbs, such as mint, thyme, basil and rosemary, can be ornamental and are heavenly to work with for their fragrance and to enhance the taste of food.

Mints are too invasive to grow among other ornamentals, so grow these in controlled conditions. Golden mint works wonderfully as a perennial container planting, and Corsican mint is only a half-inch high, has a strong peppermint fragrance and thrives in any nook and cranny you might find in the garden, a rock wall, between patio steps or in a knothole. Chocolate mint has dependably returned as a container planting in our garden for the past four to five years and makes a tasty tea.

Try a variety of thymes to fully experience them. Once you discover the number of hybrids available, you will want to collect them -- lemon, caraway, camphor, creeping. There are more than 400 recognized species of thyme. Experiment by planting them in spaces between walls, walks and patios.

Basil offers flexibility of flavors. It is highly valued as a culinary herb. Purple basil adds rich purple foliage to a perennial garden. If planted where you walk, allow it to spread onto the path. This annual herb emits a pleasant fragrance when bruised.

Rosemary will stay green year-round provided there are not many hard freezes and it's in a protected location. This evergreen grows to form a shrub of fragrance and is ideal to soften the sharp line of a wall, steps or patio. It emits a scent that will be noticed by all who brush past it. Rosemary has thrived in the Washington region the past four or five years, depending on its location. Arp (Rosmarinus officinalis "Arp") is considered to be one of the hardiest, but plant it in a protected site near your house.

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