The first fragrant plants to grace my own garden are the blue hyacinths planted against a south facing wall. This year they began blooming in mid -March. The ground then was quite dry so I watered them for the two weeks before the spring rains came. This is the first year I have done this and the blossoms stayed around for about a week longer than usual - I got almost two weeks of fragrance out of them. The weather was warm enough that on one still day I opened the kitchen window and the sweet smell of hyacinth drifted in and filled the downstairs of the house.
Perhaps it was in his "Well-Tempered Garden" that Christopher Lloyd said "you can never have enough blue hyacinths." This is one piece of his advice I have taken to heart. I love the strong and sweet smell of the hyacinth, and the way it projects through the garden. It is not my favorite garden fragrance, but it may be the most important in my own garden because it signals the start of the gardening season in a way nothing else does or could.
March is frequently dry in New Jersey, and this dryness affects not just the hyacinths but also the narcissus, the lilacs, and the roses. All of these plants have begun mobilizing resources for the early summer push, and a lack of water is a serious problem. So this year, the hyacinth blooms got me into the garden and watering. I felt a little silly at the time, but the garden has responded as I have never seen it before.
On the cool mornings of late March when I would venture into the garden to water I would find the whole place smelled strongly but subtly of apples. It was a delicious smell, but it took me some time to identify its source. It was the new foliage of the Eglantine rose (the species rose, not the David Austin cultivar.) And the reason it seemed unfamiliar is that even though the plants have been in place of five or six years, this seems to be the first season in which they have been so capable of projecting the smell through the garden. Or it was the first year I was outside at the right time to enjoy it. In any case, the smell of green apples still permeates the garden on still days in mid-May.
By the time the hyacinth had finished blooming this year it was time for the Viburnum. Viburnum x burkwoodii is the cultivar in my own garden. It grows to about 8 ft high and 6 ft across. It is very nicely branched and has grassy green, slightly rugose leaves. The flowers are tiny, white, and produced in apple-sized clusters. On a still day in the corner of a fence, a viburnum can project a delicious clove scented aroma ten or fifteen feet away. It is not every spring day that one will get this level of fragrance, but it happens a few times each spring. And each time is a thrill. In fact, of the scents in my New Jersey garden, this is my personal favorite. Butterflies like it too. It is hard to pver-praise the viburnum, because it is so perfect in every respect, yet I am told that it is a sort of a hard-sell to home owners. It' s a shame, because there is hardly a more garden-worthy plant.
By the time the viburnums are fading, the lilacs come on line. The property came with a very old and neglected lilac. I tried to revive it by judicious pruning, but it has pretty much succumbed to old age. Over the last eight years a number of other lilacs have been planted and the several that are more than five years old manage a very nice display every year. It may be that only on still days do lilacs project their fragrance very far, but whenever one puts nose to flower, there is much to reward the practice. In some cases the smell is quite close to that of lavender. In others there is some peppery overtones. In still others it is a strong honeypot smell.
Blooming at the same time as lilac are the late narcissus. I have planted a number narcissus that were claimed to be fragrant. One is poeticus narcissus. Its fragrance is not intense, but it carries very well - at least this is the case if one has a few hundred of the plants blooming at once. Sometimes the fragrance strikes me as being rich and sophisticated. At other times it is a little odd. Some years I have pronounced that it smells like five parts fine French soap and two parts pig manure. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but a person ought to smell this narcissus before planting it just for the odor.
Blooming at the same time is Narcissus 'Manley.' The flower is very large, by narcissus standards. It is a primrose yellow with a muddled center mixing the same color with a stronger yellow. As narcissus flower shapes go, this is not the most elegant, perhaps, but it has a delicious scent suggestive of lilac and orange blossom. Cut, it may only last a day or two, but it is irresistable. And my stand of them has bloomed for almost two weeks.
Ten years ago I planted a number of lilies of the valley and was warned that they would romp over everything and smother my garden. But after ten years I have only a tiny fraction of the number I planted. Many authorities insist they produce powerfully fragrant flowers, but I have yet to detect their fragrance.
By the time the lilacs and late narcissus have finished blooming we are approaching the second week of May and the fragrance show in the garden has been running for something like six or eight weeks. That's a long time for any garden feature. And there is usually a bit of a break here.
By middle or late May the peonies have started to bloom. The show stretches for roughly two weeks. Although most peonies are not very fragrant, several are deliciously so. 'Festiva Maxima' and 'Edulis Suprema' are two of the better ones. Two problems can plague peonies. One is that the giant 'bomb' type flowers, which tend to be the most fragrant, may be too heavy for the stalks. Unless they are staked, the blooms sag to the ground. Another is that under certain weather conditions they can get very badly mildewed. This is less a problem if they have not outgrown their spaces; peonies do best if divided every fourth year or so. Even with these problems, peonies can be among the easiest and most glorious of perennial plants to grow. Few plants produce larger flowers.
By the first week in June the roses have started blooming. It is a rarity for a rose to send out so much fragrance that it will waft through the garden, but it can happen. One spring day, when the garden was quite new, I sensed a delicious odor emmanating from some plant behind my home. I poked around for a while and discovered that the plant was, in fact, a rose that I had planted several weeks earlier, Sombreuil. Sombreuil has never since created so much fragrance, but I know that it will be a rose in my garden as long as I live in a zone 6 or warmer climate.
Ambridge rose has one of my favorite rose odors, it is big and round and soft. There is no fragrance in the plant kingdom that strikes me as being more feminine. Don Juan's fragrance is a delight as well, being nicely spiced.
The albas Madame Plantier and Great Maiden's Blush typically bloom at about the same time as the pale blue german iris in my garden and since they are planted together, it is impossible to fully distinguish the one smell from the other. But this is a fragrance that wafts some ten of fifteen feet from the plant. And it does so pretty reliably a few days each year.
By the second week of June there will be some asiatic lilies in bloom, but they are rarely fragrant. Fragrance in the garden takes a break for two or three weeks at this point.
Come July the daylilies are blooming. Most daylilies are not fragrant. In fact, in my own garden Hyperion, reputed to be one of the most fragrant of daylilies has never produced a noticeable scent. And it has graced the garden for ten years in shady and sunny spots. So it was a source of surprise when, after two years of growing the cream colored Ice Carnival in dark shade, it lit up with flowers last year and they perfumed most of the back yard. The smell was sweet, but not cloying - a slightly more tame and tasteful version of the hyacinth smell, perhaps. At about the same time Hudson Valley set flower. Its flowers struck me as ever so slightly more fruity. In any case I liked the smell of both so much I bought a couple dozen more of each of these this spring.
By the time the daylilies are over it is time for the oriental lilies. Lilium speciousum rubrum has proven the most durable of all. I have planted Casa Blanca and a few other orientals; but few of them last more than two years in my garden. Speciousum rubrum is not the largest of the orientals. It may be the smallest. But it is a very garden friendly color and the fragrance really is a deliciously spicy one.
Once the oriental lilies have called it quits the garden has entered the dog days of summer. Buddleias and the one or two fragrant clematis would fill the fall gap; but despite repeated efforts I have never gotten any members of these genera to grow and flower in my own garden.
I have had ambitions to grow nicotiana and heliotrope in the garden and have had some success. Last year the nicotiana survived at least long enough to bloom, and it was a heady experience. Furthermore, I found its cultivation to be quite easy. As for the heliotrope, it simply dried out in the July sun. Nobody tended to it daily and that was precisely what was required.
Between these two extremes were the sweet peas, lathyrus odorata. As with the other annuals I bought these as small plants. Several of them got started blooming and there were even a few blossoms which I found quite nice. But the plants withered in the heat of the summer. This seems quite odd to me, considering that they are native to Sicily - a place whose summers are not too different in many respects from those here in New Jersey. But maybe they have been too much 'improved.'
Another tender plant that I have had some limited success with is Brugmansia, or trumpet flower. My own plants have survived my many abuses up until frost, but they have generally not exceeded three feet in height. In a well tended California garden a trumpet flower might reach six or maybe eight feet in a season and produce many dozens of long, pendulous trumpets. My recollection is that the smell of a trumpet flower is pleasant, but I do not remember the details. Perhaps one would grow the plant more for the striking effect of the flowers which may reach almost a foot in length.
I have failed even more miserably two or three timeswith dianthus which I will try to grow again. I love the cinnamon and clove scent of the best carnations so much that even if I never succeed, I will keep on trying. I have never smelled stocks or four o'clocks and have failed with both. So it will be some time before I try them again. I do know that I am not very good with annuals; but I also know that I have succeeded with marigolds, so the cause is not completely hopeless.
Owing in part to my inability to keep annuals growing and flowering through the dog days of summer, in my own garden the lovely smell of flowers fades with the oriental lilies. It will be eight months before flowers provide much fragrance in the garden. But that's not so bad as it sounds.
Last fall around hallioween I brought inside a few fragrant plants. One was thyme. It died quickly of drought. But the peppermint survived. And from time to time I would brush by the plant and it would remind me why I love it so. Essence of peppermint is the stuff that makes candy canes worth eating, but the smell of peppermint plant has quite a number of other delicious elements that make it a lovely indoor plant. At the same time I moved the Meyer Lime indoors for the winter. It is in a big pot that is hard to move so it gets moved just one round trip per year. A combination of its own finickyness and my own neglectfulness conspired to cause it to be mostly without leaves for much of the winter. But for all this neglect, it bloomed twice. There have been times when I thought its fragrance heavenly. And there have been times when it seemed just too closely allied to a particular latrine deoderant.
There are a number of plants with fragrant leaves that I consider vital to the garden. These include the kitchen herbs thyme, sage, and rosemary. Parsley I grow, too, but it is not really fragrant. I have two versions of catmint which I find vaguely pleasant but not compelling. Thyme comes in several flavors including a lemony one. And I cannot resist any of them. Sage is also offered in several cultivars, but the differences are more related to look than to smell. That is not trivial, because sages can be quite striking as foliage plants. The dark green needle like foliage of rosemary makes for a very attractive plant, but it is not reliably hardy in zone 8.
Oregano and marjoram are plants that do quite well even on poor clay soil, once they have settled in. The spicy smells of their leaves is quite different from that of any of the other plants we have talked about, sometimes taking on a piney or even a subtle turpentine smell.
Such strong smells can be found in marigolds and in tomatoes. I happen to like this smell even though it is not what one thinks of as 'fragrance.' Nor would anyone grow tomato plants just for the smell of the leaves. But anyone who grows his own tomatoes will wish to do the same with basil. I have tried basil. All my friends and all the gardening magazines I have read assure me that it is trivially easy to grow. Just stick it in the ground and a week later it will be eight feet tall and threatening to swallow your garden whole. Mine always die within two weeks of being planted.
Much more durable is Lamb's Ears or Stachys byzantium. It thrives in impoverished clay three inches deep over crushed rock. And it is immune to drought. Each time I divide it and replant it, it wilts and I am convinced that it is gone forever. But a week later it has revived. It seems likely that it is not well suited to extremely humid climates, since the small hairs on its leaves are designed to preserve moisture, but I have seen no evidence that the climate of the NE US is the least bit of a problem. The particular gray of the leaves and the way the plant stays 'evergreen' makes it a formidable presence. Its smell is subtle but very pleasant. It moves slowly, but without some control or some good competition it will take over a bed.
I have grown three different monardas (bee balm) and have been successful with two. The one that strikes me as being completely garden worthy is Violet Queen. It is vigorous to a fault and will tolerate all lighting conditions. It will not thrive or bloom in dark shade, but it can survive for a year or two there until it is given a chance in a lighter area. And it does not mildew. This monarda drives all sorts of nectar loving insects crazy. It blooms generously and the mid-tone violet is quite friendly with most garden colors. The smell of the leaves and the roots is a distinct cedar smell - like a wooden pencil split down the middle. It is quite strong and quite distinctive.
Korean mint hyssop (Agastache x Blue Fortune) produces a 5 ft plant four feet across which it tops with blue flowers at the end of the season. The foliage dies to the ground in winter. During the warm months it smells of licorice with a touch of mint. This is a plant of very easy culture. It grows quickly and is quite sturdy, but it does not romp about gratuitously. It is not used as a culinary herb, but its smell is truly delightful. And so it is a joy to pinch a leaf or two from it in the summer or fall.
Beautiful photographs of plants and gardens are easy to find on the inernet and in books, and they will frequently be better than what we experience in the garden; but fragrance is only appreciated by a physical presence in a garden. In this sense, a real garden is always better than a virtual one.
The rose can play an integral role in a fragrant garden. And there are several pages at this site to help rose lovers find fragrant roses; but the purpose of this article is to allow gardeners with a nose for fragrance to get a good sense for the possibilities that exist for good-smelling gardens outside of the realm of roses.
There are several issues involved. One is finding smells that please. Another is finding a way to make fragrance a central part of garden design that allows for fragrance to be a regular garden experience. A third is managing plant selection in a way that supports fragrant choices without compromising other important qualities such as ease of care, hardiness, or plant habit.
The good news is that fragrance delivered by many plants in many genera, in plants with many forms, and in plants that bloom at many times in the year.
Most of the plants listed below are hardy to zone 6. Ones that are not that hardy are generally marked ' tender.' Ones hardy to colder temperatures may be marked 'hardy.' Check cold hardiness with your supplier before purchasing. (Note: read cvs. as 'cultivars')
We notice that there are a lot of details missing from this list and hope to update it and make it more useful as time goes by.
The good news is that nature has created a host of plants with pleasing fragrances. Lots of plants that we don't even think of as being fragrant are so, a bit. One of my favorite 'sleepers' is ordinary clover, the kind that once could be found in any lawn. Clover gives fresh cut grass its distinctive smell - the one that makes one love to be out in the yard. This fact is convenient, because clovers produce nitrogen that grasses crave. A good planting of clover in a lawn can not only smell good, it can reduce the amount of fertilizer a lawn uses by a measurable amount - maybe 30 percent or maybe much more.
One of the first elements in defining a garden is a fence. And every fence looks naked until dressed with flowering vines. Foremost among vining plants with fragrance must be Hall's honeysuckle. Honeysuckle was a favorite plant of mine as a child. The nectar-filled flowers never failed to amaze or amuse. And the generous and sweet perfume I loved then and I love now. Springtime in central New Jersey fills the air with the smell of honeysuckle. So much grows in the wild that you can smell it and not have any idea where the smell comes from. For a few days in late spring honeysuckle is the earth's exhalation du jour. The plant is vigorous to a fault. In fact, it is considered to be a weed. Any gardener who would consider cultivating it will wish to consider planting it where it can be naturally sequestered by hardscape boundaries. Given this caveat, it can be a garden favorite.
Mandevilla Alice du Pont I first detected growing at a nursery in Austin, Texas. I smelled what seemed to be Juicy Fruit gum; and I followed my nose. I have seen it grown as an indoor plant, practically filling up a whole room with vines. And I have failed with it one summer in New Jersey. Evidently, not only is it very frost tender, but also it needs plenty of moisture.
Wisterias are mysterious. I have occasionally found a wisteria that is quite fragrant. And I have experienced several that are not very. I cannot recall whether it is usual for information about fragrance to be part of sales literature for specific wisteria cultivars; so it may be difficult getting good information about this. To make matters worse, it is not uncommon for a wisteria to wait ten years or so from being planted to the point at which it blooms generously. This makes getting to the point of wisteria fragrance in the garden a matter of both great diligence and great patience.
Of vining plants, my favorite must be Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) The plant produces dark green shiny leaves on a rather stiff twining stem. The look is very elegant. In fact, even if it did not flower, the plant would still be used sometimes for decorative purposes to cover lattices. Once a year for perhaps a week it covers itself with inch wide five pointed white flowers that extend the elegant look. The fragrance is powerful, sweet, but not the least bit cloying. It is among the most compelling garden fragrances I can think of. I certainly perefer it to that of hyacinths or honeysuckle or even a good orange blossom. It is easy to grow. An occasional hard freeze in zone 8 will kill all top growth to the ground, but it grows readily from the roots. I would not live in a zone 8 or 9 location without growing it.
The same theme of dark green, canoe shaped, glossy leaves and simple, white, fragrant flowers is carried on in Magnolia grandiflora. This is a lovely evergreen tree with cultivars hardy to zone five. The flowers can be quite large - almost a foot across and are very pleasantly redolent of lemon. Unfortunately a good-sized tree may only produce a dozen or so of these great beauties, and they do not last long, so one will be much more likely to grow the tree for its foliage than for its flower. A number of other magnolias are more foliferous, but not all are fragrant.