Garden & Landscape Tips

Lily "Stargazer."
Lily "Stargazer." Most lilies are somewhat fragrant perennials for the summer landscape.
© George Weigel

New plant varieties are usually bred for longer bloom time, new colors, compact size, pest and disease resistance, or improved cold hardiness. These are attractive qualities many gardeners gravitate toward during plant selection. An often overlooked trait, however, is fragrance.

While some modern cultivars lack the aromatic intensity of their predecessors, traditional plants such as flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius), and lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) have retained their fragrance. Scented geraniums, sages and herbs have also retained the scent-producing oils that release when their foliage is bruised or rubbed.

What should I grow? Before running headlong down the scented route, make sure you actually like the fragrances of the plants you’re considering. Some gardeners love the scent of English boxwood, while others say it reminds them of a cat’s litter box. If you can’t get a whiff of a plant at buying time (for example, when ordering by mail), stop and smell the flowers in neighbors’ landscapes, parks or public gardens. Be aware that not all types or varieties of a plant are fragrant. Some viburnums, for example, are much more fragrant than others. Many plants with aromatic leaves fall in the herbs category. Herbs provide subtle fragrance all season, not just during bloom. Try scented geraniums, lemon thyme, feverfew, lavender cotton (Santolina), rosemary or oregano. Many evergreen shrubs, especially cedar, cypress and firs emit a pleasant aroma.

Lily "Stargazer."
Lilac "Miss Kim." Lilacs are among the most fragrant spring-blooming shrubs.
© George Weigel

Where should I plant? Like dinner in the oven, aromatic plants scent best in the heat of full sun. Choose plants with differing bloom times and plant them in different parts of the garden as focal points for particular seasons. Ideal spots include along walkways, near door entrances, around patios and benches, and next to windows where a breeze will carry sweet or tangy scents into the house on warm evenings. Resist the urge to pack all your perfumed choices together in a single “fragrance garden.” The perfumes will blend and overpower.

Some of the best fragrant flowers by season:

Early spring: Picks include Dutch hyacinths, lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) and some daffodils, especially the Jonquilla, Poeticus and Tazetta types. In shrubs, consider witch hazel (Hamamelis), winter hazel (Corylopsis), and star magnolia (Magnolia stellata).

Mid-spring: Two of the most fragrant shrubs – the Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) and the Judd viburnum (Viburnum judii) bloom now. Their blush pink flowers each smell spicy. Lilacs, peonies, daphne, mock orange, apples, many tulips, sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) and Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) bloom now too.

Late spring: Many varieties of bearded iris (Iris x germanica) have mild but pleasant scents. Roses reach their peak on the cusp of summer. Many of the hybrid teas, grandifloras and multifloras are fragrant, but test them yourself before buying. Shrub roses tend to have a lighter perfume. Some honeysuckles are nicely scented.

Summer: Traditional and heirloom selections of annuals such as vanilla-scented heliotrope (Heliotropium), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), and mignionette (Reseda odorata) often beat hybrids in the scent department. Lilies, hosta, carnations, lavender, and garden phlox are other choices. Heavily scented white tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa) is best enjoyed from afar — it can be overpowering up close. Plant the tender bulbs in spring.

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