Friday, September 10, 2010

Fragrance in the garden

When you think of fragrance in the garden I bet you think of flowers first, right? It’s only natural; scent is a big part of their appeal (for the ones that still have a fragrance and it hasn’t been bred out of them…but that’s a whole different subject). As a gardener who puts priority on foliage rather than flowers I’ve discovered the garden can still be alive with scent, and the effect isn’t nearly as fleeting.

Herbs are an obvious choice for delicious foliar scent. I can’t walk by a Rosemary bush without dragging my fingers across it. Lucky for me there are several planted in parking strips around the neighborhood. Stepping on or dragging the garden hose across the carpet of Corsican Mint releases a powerful burst of odor that can stop me in my tracks. I highly recommend planting this “stepable” in your garden.For me Basil is the smell of summer. This year my plants are growing along the front of the tomato and pepper stock tanks, when watering, picking a tomato (in an admittedly infrequent occurrence this year) or just walking by, you brush against the leaves and their distinctive scent fills the air.But there is another type of scent that I have been enjoying this summer. This awareness began in the most enjoyable of places. I was invited to a gathering of plant people, serious hardcore plant people. They were meeting at Sean Hogan’s house. Since Sean is the force behind Cistus Nursery naturally his personal garden is going to be a pretty amazing place. Well as luck would have it my visit was in the early spring, in the evening. By the time the gathering began it was already dusk. By the time I got a garden tour it was completely dark…so you guessed it. No pictures to share.

But as we carefully made our way around the garden my tour guide, Kate Bryant, mentioned the strong resinous smell that filled the air. On some level I had been aware of it but as soon as it was pointed out it became undeniable, and I was hooked.

In addition to being a garden writer, Kate is also a garden designer; whenever possible she incorporates that wonderful resinous scent in the gardens she designs. As you would expect, in her personal garden plants are placed where she can fully enjoy the aromas they provide. For example this large Cistus ‘Blanche’ is growing near her back steps, and it smells divine! She phrases it best: “I'm a crazed sensualist when it comes to foliar scent and that sticky, resinous Cistus 'Blanche' by my back steps is one of my favorites.” Last June she wrote a post on her blog Plantwise, about planting favored plants where you can really appreciate them…you can read that post here.My garden smells extra good now too, as Kate gave me a Salvia clevelandii 'alpine' from Xera. It smells AMAZING, thanks Kate! I still haven’t managed to find the perfect place for it to go in the ground. So in the mean time it’s in a pot on the patio…right next to the chair I like to set in. It fills the air with aroma of far away places, vacation places, relaxing places. For a few fleeting moments I am transported away and in sunny warm California. We had a freak rainstorm a couple of nights ago (over an inch of rain in less than an hour) and the smell in the garden the next morning was amazing. Of course the fresh air was lovely but that little Salvia was on overdrive. So wonderful…I’d love to learn more about what plants you depend on for fragrance in your garden, and you earn extra credit if they have nothing to do with flowers!


  1. I wouldn't say depend on, but there area few plants in my container garden that I have found I like the scent of and repositioned partly because I wanted to experience each differently. The big one at the moment is my akashiso, japanese herb I wanted to make tea from. Turns out it is pretty fragrant during warm weather and especially now that is has flowered. Glad I decided to let it go to seed because it's been an extra bonus for me. It also smells great mixed with the scents of the sage and rosemary growing nearby it.
    I also really enjoy the scent off my limelight basil, the citrusy tang of it is fun and refreshing :)
    I've also come to recognize and enjoy the scent off my tomato plants. Before it was just odd, but now the brain has permanently associated it with good food, happy times and sunlight. That was a surprise, I actually came to that realization last night.

  2. Melianthus Major smells exactly like peanut butter when you brush against it. The flowering spires of lambs' ears have an interesting, subtle scent, and of course the leaves of the Eucalyptus make me feel like I'm in a spa.

  3. Agastache has a wonderful minty-resinous smell that arises from the plant in the sun. As you observed, my herbs are all fragrant and provide lots of gardening aroma. I love the smell of tomato plants, too - it's the smell of summer, even if we never get to eat the fruit of summer!

  4. Herbs are wonderful for fragrance. Like you, I love the basil. I planted basil, mint and parsely at the kitchen door entry for that reason. My favorite is in spring with the French lilac. The roses of summer are not bad either. I know they are flowers, but so memorable. Calamintha has teeny flowers but the fragrance is all summer. Same for Sweet Woodruff.

  5. Some of my favorite foliage smells are Vitex and Santolina, both of them have a medicinal, but not unpleasant fragrance. When I was at Kew in London, I was in the Salvia garden and ran my hands through and pushed my nose into S. sclarea which has a funky, someone needs a shower kind of smell. I could not get the odor off of my person and hoped no one thought it was from me.

  6. Basil IS the scent of summer, though I'd never thought of it before! Russian sage is a biggy for me. I like to plant those in places where we bump into them when passing. Wonderful fragrance that kind of catches you off guard.

  7. Oh yes! Fragrant plants, planted near pathways! It's so nice to get a burst of fragrance as you enter a space. Gardening is about so much more than just a visual, scent is a wonderful way to invoke emotion in the garden.

  8. Mary C, I love the way you described the scent of your tomato plants, "good food, happy times and sunlight" I totally agree. In fact I would love to have that exact scent available in the dead of winter. What a mood lifter.

    MulchMaid, thank you for the hint on the smell of Agastache, I've never grown it. And could I have forgotten to mention the tomato plants! Mary C said it so well.

    gardenwalkgardentalk, really? Sweet Woodruff? Well next year when it blooms I'll have my nose down to the ground checking it out!

    Les, I've been meaning to try Santolina, thank you for giving me another push. As for the Kew Salvia scent...ha! I hope so too...I can only imagine how self conscious you must have been. Reminds me of a garlic story...I'll save that for another time.

    Kate, a good one! Russian sage is a winner for sure!

    Laura, well put!

  9. Loree, I'm so glad you're enjoying Salvia clevlandii. It's one of the most fragrant plants I know and the scent is powerful, even if you never brush against it... Other favorites are the Texas sages, Ceanothus velutinus (smells intoxicatingly like a vinyl car seat when sun beats down on it) and our native red currant, which smells a bit musky, like cat spray but WAY nicer. Hard to imagine - but try sniffing it, you'll see!

  10. Every one of my scented Pelargoniums pleases me, though not as much as Basil, which is number one on my fragrant foliage list..Citrus blossoms are number one on the flower side.

  11. You've done it again, Loree. Great post.

    A few years ago on a fall [ahem] day, my friend Carol and I were perusing the aisles of Garland Nursery when we came upon a scent that wowed us. Baby powder but better, spicy baby powder. I bought the source, Salvia clevelandii and gave Carol a cutting. Neither of our plants survived last winter even when protected. Thankfully I'd also given starts to Mark and Ann so I was able to get a replacement plant from them [Fry Road]. I LOVE this plant. The fragrance is just delicious and probably my favorite foliage fragrance. However I also get a thrill out of Bergamot or Orange Mint and Monarda didyma or Bee Balm. I love Corsican mint but I can't seem to keep it alive in my dry soil. Thankfully Pennyroyal has the exact same pungently mint fragrance. Yum. Oh yes, someone mentioned the Agastaches. They are wonderful!!!! Some like bubble gum others like licorice.

    There are a few putrid smelling leaves too. Leave it to me to find the negative. :) I loathe the scent of Choisya ternata and Nepeta yunnanensis leaves. Oh and the Lamiums are nasty SOBs too. But none are icky enough to stop me from growing them. I just hold my nose. :)

    I'm curious if Karen [must check out her blog] has overwintered S. 'clevelandii' successfully. If so I need to know her secret.

  12. ks, citrus blooms in the garden, in my dreams.

    Kate, a vinyl car seat? Interesting. I will have to check these out...!

    Grace, thank you. Maybe it's a good think mine is still in a container then...all the better to protect it! And thank you for the other names!

  13. In my former garden it was all about the salvias, particularly S. greggii, whose leaves smell so minty fresh when you run your hands across them. In my new garden I am loving sweet almond verbena, which has bloomed nonstop all summer and is still going. Dianthus in spring. Hopefully soon I'll have the peppery fragrance of shrubby white boneset, a native woody perennial with butterfly-attracting white flowers in fall.


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