By Jan Pipher, Freelance Writer
n this world of bigger blooms, unusual colors, longer flowering seasons, landscapeability and all the things the horticultural hybridizers strive for, doesn’t it seem strange that no one seems to be pursuing interesting fragrances or at the very least, preserving fragrance? Could it be, that there are people today who do not know that a rose is supposed to have a scent, or who do not realize that roses can smell like apples, cloves, musk, tea or a memory – like that of playing paper dolls under the shade of the rose arbor on a warm summer day? What does the scent of gardenias remind you of? What about the scent of peach blossoms or the scent of honeysuckle vines? This is what fragrance in the garden is all about, letting your nose lead you around through the delightful range of scent associations from the flowering magnolia to tiny alyssum, from pungent rosemary to astringent Dahlberg daisies and even to stinky “dead horse cactus.”
Though our sense of smell is many times more sensitive than our sense of taste, we have a surprisingly limited vocabulary for describing scents and, ironically, many scents end up being described by flavors. The following ten groups have been created to categorize flower scents, these range from awful to sublime depending on your nose.
Indole: plants that smell of decayed meat such as “dead horse cactus” or skunk cabbage.
Aminoid: unpleasant smells like decayed fish or ammonia and includes many umbel headed flowers such as Queen Anne’s lace.
Heavy: this group has smells similar to the Aminoid but sweeter, like the smell of paperwhite narcissus.
Aromatic: these are some of the nicest scents – vanilla, balsam, almond, cloves – as found in some heliotrope, peonies, stock and dianthus, for example.
Violet: smelling like violets of course, the height of sweet.
Rose: found in roses, also in some peonies and scented geraniums.
Lemon: mostly found in leaves, as in lemon verbena but also in evening primroses and reportedly in some water lilies.
Fruit: many roses and some bulbs fall into this category.
Musk: this is called the animal-scented group, smell an oxeye daisy and see if you do not agree.
Honey: similar to the Musk group but sweeter, like buddleia.
Leaf scents fall into four more groups, “turpentine” (rosemary), “camphor” (eucalyptus, catmint, scented geraniums), “mint” (peppermint, spearmint) and “sulfur” (society garlic, alliums). Then there are also scented barks, roots, and berries to throw into the mix.
One of the purposes of scent in the plant world is to attract pollinators but this is not always so. The less pleasant smells of the indole and aminoid group attract carrion flies as their pollinators, but bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and moths are more often attracted by color than scent. The tiny woodland violet is self-pollinating, theoretically needing no help from insects, yet it emits one of histories most famous perfumes. It is almost as if scent has been added as a bonus, to make life more enjoyable, and that is what it does for the flower garden as well. Usually we design our garden with colors first, then textures second perhaps, but what if we planned our garden around fragrances? Not that we would throw out the color wheel but if we need a late summer white, why not think in terms of tuberose; or a conversation piece, chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata); or a shade providing vine, sweet autumn clematis?
Springtime in Texas is fragrant. The hillsides smell of Mexican plum blossoms and grape scented Texas mountain laurel; the fields smell of bluebonnets and phlox; the grasses smell; the vegetable garden is sweet with the scent of peas, and the flower garden is at its peak. There are so many scents that it is hard to single one out from the others. When we think of early spring fragrances, narcissus and iris are probably first to come to mind. Members of the mint family are greening up and penny royal, the strongest of all, fills the air with its clean-scented aroma when planted along pathways to be crushed underfoot. Sun-warmed oregano and salad burnet emit their healthy medicinal scents and later in the spring, bee balm – especially the lemon-scented citrodora types, fill the breeze with the scents of the herb garden. Old-fashioned honeysuckle perfumes the back yard fence and children still pick the blooms to sip the nectar. Yarrow’s plumes of fern-like foliage give out their strong astringent smell in perennial borders. In a nice cool spring with not too much moisture which ruins the blooms of the more tightly petaled types, roses will over-power all other garden scents – even that of “skunky” society garlic planted at their base to repel aphids. And, who can think of spring without remembering wisteria or recalling the “heavy” scent of Easter lily, one of the oldest recorded fragrances?
Early summer brings forth the wonderful vanilla scent of old-fashioned summer phlox. In the background your nose can pick up whiffs of sweet daylilies, musky Shasta daisies, listerine marigolds and old-fashioned petunias. Now the basil season begins and fills the garden with its spice along with lavender, bay and dill. As the heat intensifies, our noses do not function as well, so we start out in the cool of the morning to smell the roses but later in the day, the heat of the sun will express the strong scents from the surrounding cedar trees and rosemary, thyme, scented geraniums and lemon verbena. A special balm after a long, hard day are the night bloomers and flowers whose delicate scents are more noticeable in the cicada-filled evenings. Four o’clocks (better known as “seven o’clocks” here in the South) are an old time evening scent, along with the giant angel trumpets (Datura spp.), tall flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) and jasmines. Some summer scent plants like copper canyon daisy and lantana smell better from a distance rather than up close. Also included in this category but not for the same reason, is the jasmine scent of stinging nettle – it is delightful, but you do not want to get your nose stung!
Except for a resurgence rose bloom, most fall scents seem to be of the astringent variety – think of fall blooming asters, mums, calendulas and tansy. Cooler weather livens up the herb garden scents, especially the tarragon scent of golden-flowered Mexican marigold mint. White blooming eupatorium (Eupatorium havanense) is a memorable fall odor in the woods or native flower garden, attracting the last of the butterflies.
Icy winter cold fronts sweep away every fragrance except that of rich smelling wood smoke from cozy evening fires. But, when the gulf air pushes its way northward again, you notice, via your nose, that the garden is not dead – there under the leaf mulch, mint and oregano are doing fine and the lemon tasting oxalis has not missed a bloom. Some of our trees and shrubs are winter bloomers, the most noticeable being cinnamon-scented loquat, winter honeysuckle and eleagnus with their heady perfumes. Resilient paperwhite narcissus bloom off and on during the winter and in the southern parts of the state, sweet peas and freesias are a winter treat.
With our year-round growing season and ample humidity (in most areas), which helps prolong a scent, it is possible to create a four-season fragrance garden using this sampling of plants for a start. Plan to contain your scents by planting them in a calm area, out of the wind – against a wall or hedges or under arbors as in some historic gardens (arbor comes from the word herber, a “place where fragrant plants grow”). Scents are heavier than the surrounding air, making them more noticeable closer to the ground. The addition of a garden bench will give you a place to rest while also getting your nose down into the midst of the fragrances. Many of the scent plants that release their fragrances in the warm summer evenings, as mentioned above, are typically white or light colored. These, used in conjunction with aromatic, silver foliage artemisias and sages, are foundations for creating a fragrant moonlight garden as well.