Factor in Fragrance When Selecting Plants

By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener

When people plan their gardens, they usually select plants based upon color, size and shape. Less often they think about the scent. But we are often drawn to certain plants specifically because of their unique fragrances.

Some scents are simply appealing to the senses while others tend to bring back childhood memories. For me, sweet peas always remind me of my Aunt Mildred. She planted them along her chain link fence. The sweet pea vines would cling to the fence and provide a beautiful background for her rose bushes. They also made lovely bouquets for the house. Another fragrance reminiscent of my childhood is mint. It brings back memories of my mother’s garden where it was tucked into a corner under a lilac bush.

There are different ways we could categorize scented plants (such as trees and bushes or annuals and perennials). Although it is not scientific, I put plants with offensive odors into a category of their own. This is because they are ones I avoid planting too close to my house or patio.

While stinky plants may be offensive to my nose, they seem to be appealing to children. At Michigan State University 4-H Children’s Gardens, kids love to explore the different smells in the scented gardens and wonder at unexpected odors. “Skunk cabbage really does smell like a skunk,” a child exclaimed, when I visited. Plants with less-appealing odors are also thought to deter wildlife from invading gardens. Some examples are ornamental onions, Russian sage and marigolds.

Like all plants, your success in growing scented ones will depend on providing conditions as close as possible to their natural habitats.

With that in mind, your next consideration should be where to locate them so they can be enjoyed by people, as well as insects. For instance, if a plant is a strong attractor for bees, you want to include it in your garden as a pollinator. However, if someone in your family is allergic to bees, you would not want to plant it near high traffic areas. Instead, you could locate it in a distant corner of your yard where the bees can do their work undisturbed.

Some plants don’t give off a scent unless they are brushed against or crushed. These are ones to place near a door, sidewalk or pathway. Others provide an airborne scent that encompass a wide area. Examples include roses, garden pinks and freesias. These are good placed under windows, over pergolas or around patios, so they can be enjoyed while sitting by the window, relaxing in the garden or walking along the sidewalk.

Some plants, such as impatiens and evening primrose, have a strong scent that fills the air during the night. You might enjoy these while sitting on your patio on a hot summer evening.

Finally, there are some scented plants that are ideal for cutting and putting into flower arrangements to enjoy indoors. These include roses, peonies and carnations.

Although you can order scented plants from catalogues, it’s a good idea to visit your local nursery to see if the plant’s fragrance is one that you personally enjoy. When selecting the plants, consider when the flowers will bloom and give off the most aromas.

Considering seasonal diversity will allow you to enjoy different fragrances year round. There are some flowering shrubs that survive over the winter and flower at the beginning of the year in spite of cold temperatures or snow. For example, witch-hazel is a hardy shrub with small, strongly scented flowers formed of four unusual shaped sepals that come in yellow, red or a purplish color. Vibumums are another group of shrubs which bear whitish-pink flowers in the fall and winter and darker pink flowers in the spring.

In previous columns, I mentioned several spring-flowering bulbs that also provide distinct scents. These include iris, grape hyacinth, phlox, violets and daffodils. There are also many spring-flowering shrubs with pleasant fragrances. For instance, clematis is an evergreen climber native to China with dark green leaves and white or pinkish flowers and a delicate scent.

Some summer perennials that you may enjoy are cosmos and jasmine. There are more than 200 genus of jasmine, but you should talk to your garden center about which ones will grow best in your area. I had success with climbing jasmine, a low maintenance shrub with white star-shaped flowers that emerge from burgundy buds. The foliage tends to be sparse at the base, so it’s a good idea to place low-growing plants underneath. I particularly enjoy jasmine because you can cut the flowers for indoor arrangements and the scent is absolutely incredible.

April is a wonderful time to visit your garden center where you can explore the selection of beautiful plants and flowers and consider what scents you want to enjoy throughout the coming months.