SCENT IS PERSONAL. While we can share the view of a pretty sunset or the sound of a neighbor’s wind chimes, our sense of smell is intimate, residing solely within our physical self. Fragrance might be invisible, but it’s a powerful element in the garden. Even with my eyes closed, I can tell the time of the year, even the time of day, by the scents in my garden.
It’s officially summer when a heady-but-not-too-heady fragrance greets me as I step out the back door. Clothed with glossy evergreen leaves and a constellation of creamy white flowers all summer long, star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is a hardy shrub that thinks it’s a vine, or maybe it’s a woody vine that wants to be a shrub. My nearly 25-year-old plant is trained against a brick wall, but you also can use them as a mounding ground cover in beds and borders.
Out in the garden, sweet peas and rugosa roses are tender and fresh first thing in the morning. When they’re still damp from overnight dew, I cut stems and gather blossoms to bring indoors, placing fragrant posies around the house. The fragrance of basil, lavender and pungent marigolds peaks as the heat of the day activates their volatile aromatic compounds. Other herbs, like mint, lemon verbena and anise hyssop, release their scent with touch. A shady pathway edged (OK, overrun) with spearmint creates a refreshing entrance to my sunny back garden as friends trod the sweet herb.
Then there was the time my garden was part of a tour, and a giant voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris) picked that very day to bloom. Pollinated by flies, the blossom gives off a horrible stench. The huge maroon spathe and spadix were impressive in more ways than one — visitors spent most of the day looking for what surely was a dead body in the border. I digress.
Even assertive scents that are pleasing can become overpowering in an enclosed space, such as a walled patio. I keep lilies deep in the border, where wafting breezes diffuse their potent fragrance. Not so with a pot of Heaven Scent® gardenias sited near a chair on the back stoop. Perfectly hardy and with good repeat bloom all summer, the blooms’ exotic tropical aroma is a tonic when I collapse after a long day working in the garden.
Scented geraniums are in a somewhat quirky category of their own. While related to common bedding geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), these South Africa natives have relatively insignificant and scentless flowers. Instead, they are grown for their fragrant foliage: rose, nutmeg, mint, pine and lemon, to name but a few. With more than 200 varieties, these olfactory copycats beg to be collected. I grow my plants in containers and protect them when temperatures drop below freezing.
I’m attracted to any garden fragrance but none more so than that of night-scented plants. Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), evening primrose (Oenothera) and the homely but fragrant night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala) all mark the end of the day with an exquisite exhalation of fragrance. Botanically speaking, these plants are targeting pollinators such as moths, bats and other night-flying insects, but to me they mark the end of another long day in the summer garden.