What are the best plants to create a sweet perfume in your garden? Start by figuring out what smells best to you.
A FRAGRANT GARDEN is one of the greatest pleasures of summer. We’re already past the midpoint of the season and sliding toward the equinox, which makes the perfume of lilies and roses even more precious. That slight tip of the Earth toward autumn, barely perceptible, makes me want to store up all the summer joys I can, eating meals outdoors and lingering in the garden well past twilight.
Scented plants add a dimension, invisible yet visceral, to the garden. Nothing evokes the pleasures of summer present, while stirring up memories from summers past, like the most fragrant trees, shrubs, bulbs, perennials and annuals. Many quintessential summer flowers, like dahlias, sunflowers and hydrangeas, have little or no scent. So how to perfume the garden, as lavishly as possible, from now into September?
Begin by figuring out your favorite flower fragrances, because everyone’s olfactory system is so individual. One person’s favorite scent is another person’s sneeze, or even stink. And, strange as it might seem, some individual plants are more highly scented than others, so be sure to search out plants in bloom, then sniff before purchase.
The English or David Austin roses are known for the complexity and strength of their fragrance. Many of them repeat bloom, so they are flowering again now, exuding that deep, fruity, old-rose fragrance. A couple of the most highly scented are the velvety, crimson-fading-to-purple ‘William Shakespeare’, and another aristocrat, ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, with tangerine-colored double blossoms. Its flowers are redolent of fruit, with hints of pear, grape and citrus. Yes, rose scent is described as preciously as the bouquet of fine wines.
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If you’re going to grow lavender, or any other flower, for that matter, why not choose the most fragrant type? With lavender, that would be L. x intermedia ‘Grosso’, a great garden plant, with dark blue-purple flower wands atop compact, gray-green foliage. Of course, opinions differ on which lavender is the most fragrant, but you won’t go wrong with any cultivars of Lavandula x intermedia or English lavender (L. angustifolia).
Phlox, that old standby of cottage gardeners, has sweet-faced flowers that are intensely fragrant from now until first frost. Newer cultivars are more resistant to powdery mildew; check out P. paniculata ‘Flame Pink’, which is short and sturdy, with large, watermelon-pink blooms.
One of my favorite late-summer plants is a perennial with lacy, dark foliage and white, honey-scented flower wands. Known as bugbane for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out, Actaea simplex ‘Black Negligee’ is long-blooming and dramatic-looking, and carries on well into autumn.
But I’m saving the best until last. No summer garden can be described as scented without Oriental lilies. I asked Dianna Gibson, owner of B&D Lilies in Port Townsend, which she considers the most supremely fragrant. This discerning grower with fields and fields of lilies calls out ‘Musassi’ as the most pleasing scent of all. This new-for-2016 lily is an Oriental-trumpet hybrid, with upward-facing blossoms so purple, they’re nearly black.
You can make the most of fragrant flowers by layering a variety of scents. Think about how in a good conversation people’s thoughts play off each other and words overlap as voices rise and fall. Fragrance, too, is enriched by interaction. The lemon scent of a waxy magnolia blossom drifts down from a tree branch to soften the warm, resinous scent of lavender, which in turn takes the edge off the intoxicating sweetness of Oriental lilies. Just make sure at least one stand of those lilies is ‘Musassi’.