Plant A Garden For The Fragrance Of It

Ilona Erwin

When expending effort and expense for a garden, most today will opt for fresh herbs or food for the table. Some desire low maintenance landscaping that will add to the value of their homes, but some of us want the sheer sensory delight that a bevy of perfumed plantings will give us.

It is something of an old fashioned pleasure, I suppose, because it takes time to slow down and enjoy the aromas of plants outdoors. You know, the old adage of taking time to smell the roses.

Not all the plantings easily fit into modern demands for “easy”, demand-free gardening, but what they lack in ease they more than make up for in reward to the soul.

Some, of course are well known. Roses, as mentioned, Oriental lilies (Lilium), Lavender…but some have fallen out of favor and may be harder to source, require purchase and planting of seed, or catalog order.

If you were to add aromatic foliage, sweet smelling flowers, shrubs, or trees to your yard, where would you begin?

The Sweet Smell of Roses

antique rose

Madame Hardy

There is good reason to start with roses, since modern types can provide bloom almost all season, some of the most desirable scents, in a good looking landscape shrub. The key is in the right choice, among the thousands available and offered al year.

Important Questions

  • Which ones yield the best perfume?
  • Varieties with the finest flowers?
  • Qualities which hold their own in terms of garden worthiness: plant health and foliage?

Roses Are Not All Equal In Perfume

Not all roses are equal in this regard, and it may surprise you to find that some roses have no scent at all. They are grown for other qualities. If the bloom does have a perfume, there are a number of variances… old rose, myrrh or licorice, fruity, musk, and tea rose. Like fine wines, there are many “notes” discerned, such as blackberry or plum, spice or apple.

A list of Roses and their descriptions, here.

Heirloom Roses

Rosa plants come in anything from tiny miniatures to very tall bushes, some are climbers- needing support, others stiffly upright. With such a range of form to choose from, aside from the varied differences in foliage, hardiness, and vigor, some research needs to be done. Make a “possibilities” list in your garden journal or organizer book.

Whether you make a rose garden, or include scented roses among other garden plants, like I do, the aromatic sweetness of their blooms on a June evening makes one of the joys of life.

Things To Know When Growing Roses
  • Whether you have enough sun, they need sunshine
  • pH and fertility of soil
  • your hardiness zone and the range of the rose’s hardiness

Secondarily, for our purposes, the fragrance rating and reputation of the rose variety is very useful to know.

The Perfume Of Annuals

varied annuals container

Some of the best loved scents come in the form of plants grown as annuals, from Sweet Alyssum to Mignonette, there are many that can be tucked into containers or a flower bed for transporting scents on a summer’s eve.

The container shown has pink petunias, velvety purple Heliotrope, and a variegated sage which contribute sweet odors on a summer breeze. The other plants are Verbena and Polka Dot plant.

Choose from a number of types.
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Have you ever stepped into an herb garden on a summer day? The fragrance of the plants, blossoms, and the palpable buzzing of insects fills the air. Brushing against close planted mounds of aromatic plants will also release its oils into the air.

Herbs are among the pre-eminent choices for scenting the garden.

Try These For Scent

Some are grown solely for that fact, like lavender or orris root. Anise mint or Licorice Mint: (Agastache foeniculum), Nepeta spp. or Catmints, and scented geraniums all are primarily grown just because they smell so good.

Grow Lavender for Heavenly ScentMy 10 Favorite Herbs

Bulbs For Fragrance

While there are sweet smelling tulips and daffodils, it is the Oriental lilies of summer that perfume a garden like almost no other flower. Rich, sultry spice fills the air when these lilies are in bloom.

Not everyone finds heavy perfume attractive, and these late blooming lilies may be too much for those who like light, wispy, “barely there” experience of volatile oils. Trumpet lilies, with the heaviest scent, might be replaced with Lilium regale or Orienpet selections, instead.

Most of the Asiatic types that I have grown were unscented, but there are some with a reputation for light aroma.

‘Longwood’,’Eyeliner’,’Indian Summerset’ are three you might try.
oriental lilies

Then there are the pips of Lily of the Valley. During their bloom season their sweet, musky odor is redolent in the May garden. They will spread widely, once they take hold- which is why they come recommended as a groundcover.

Fragrant Shrubs

I am guilty of choosing to grow a shrub for no other reason than that it will bring its sweet airs to the garden mix.

The whole idea entranced me, and when a garden writer would wax poetic about the effects of its perfume I would be sold. Completely sold, and it soon showed up in my plantings. All warnings of uselessness for season long attractiveness fell on deaf ears.

Winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, is one of those, and I have never regretted planting it. I have had to cut it down to the ground because of dieback. That happens after a particularly hard winter, but the shrubs grow back, reinvigorated.

lilac flowers

Familiar lilac blooms with their memorable scent.

Lilacs are another of this class. Designers always grouse about them, when something as prime as Viburnums are available. I plant them both, because I have the room. But even in my small city garden I somehow found space for all three so far mentioned.

Sweetshrub is a bit less popular and harder to source. it was a plant my mother grew on the side of the house. It always intrigued me with its resemblance to cloves in smell and in the shape of the flower. I did plant it once, but it didn’t survive the unfortunate neglect of that year.

My Ideal Shrub Garden

My ideal would include many of the best flowering shrubs for all parts of the season’s march across the year. From late winter through late fall, I would plant whatever berried, scented, colorful shrub would add landscape value.

Rhus aromatica

One of those would be the Fragrant Sumac, Rhus aromatica. In fact I did plant that, but in harms way of the County engineers who decided to rework the entire road frontage for a new ditch. It is a lovely plant, and worth finding and planting once again.

“A garden full of sweet odours is a garden full of charm, a most precious kind of charm not to be implanted by mere skill in horticulture or power of purse, and which is beyond explaining.  It is  born of sensitive and very personal preferences yet its appeal is almost universal.”
-  Louise Beebe Wilder

A word on the experience of fragrance is in order here. Rhus aromatica is called “lemon sumac” by some and “polecat sumac” by others, which brings up the subject of what we individually deem as pleasant.

Your Pleasant Could Be My Unpleasant

I can distinctly recall a writer saying Cimicifuga had a nice smell, when I registered it as a stink. The same with Cleome (for me). And Sweet Alyssums teeter on the  edge for me, although many descriptions say it is a “honey” aroma. Chaque à son goût.

  • ‘Angel Face’ beautiful lavender floribunda, not completely hardy. Treat like a hybrid tea.
  • ‘Buff Beauty’ apricot hybrid musk shrub rose. Not hardy in zone 5.
  • Hansa‘, light crimson rugosa with loose petaled blooms. Very hardy.
  • ‘Heritage’, Austin “English rose”, tall pale pink shrub that is garden worthy.
  • ‘La France’ , pink hybrid tea which is one of the oldest of its form.
  • ‘Maggie’ crimson Bourbon which needs protection in zone 5
  • ‘Pierrine’ coral pink miniature.
  • ‘Souvenir de St. Anne’s’ is a pale pink Bourbon. Most of the bourbon roses are highly fragrant, but not hardy in my zone 5 garden.
  • Almost all the old roses have pleasing and enduring perfume, including the Eglantine which has sweet apple-scented foliage.
  • ‘Yellow Blaze’ yellow floribunda with healthy foliage.
  • Viburnums
  • Calycanthus floridus
  • Lilacs (Syringa)
  • Lonicera fragrantissima
  • Mock Oranges, though their fragrance varies.Some don’t seem to have it at all.
  • Witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.)
  • Fruit trees in bloom
  • Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Fringe trees
  • Crabapple
  • Linden (Tilia cordata), whose flowers are edible and made into beverages.
  • Yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea)
Herbs are grown because of their oils and fragrance, which impart flavors to food. There are both scented annuals and perennials. Check their lists. Some leaves like Sweet Woodruff waft their scent into the air.

Finding Flowers To Meet The Requirement

The Most Fragrant

What If…

You Had Little Space?

To add fragrance, think of the time of the year you most often would benefit from it, or which ones are most significant to you (childhood lilacs?), or perhaps what would fit best in your entry garden.

From there, consider the amount of time you would reasonably spend working on such a space. If you love to plant things in spring, perhaps an annual bed or if you don’t mid the watering, a container.

Then choose your plants. If you can, visit gardens and identify those with scents you love. I often would visit a public rose garden, The roses I liked the best would be noted, and I looked for them in the local nursery.

You Have Little Time Or Physical Ability?

I would opt for a couple favorite shrubs, or a tree or two. Have them professionally planted, if you lack physical ability to do so.  The beauty is seasonal, but come back more beautifully each year.

Again, the ease and versatility of containers creates the best impact for little work, or none at all if the nursery plants them up.

You Have Space, Time, and Will

Make sure to include delighting your nose among the reasons to plant a garden. The heady mix of a number of aromatic, fragrant scents gives true delight.

Walking by a winter shrub and catching a whiff of lemon or sweetness can lift the spirit, while the restorative nature of many of the herbs and flowers provide a homegrown aromatherapy session in your own backyard.

Simply become aware of which plantings afford the best scents, and choose accordingly, as you plan the garden and landscape the yard.


Fragrant Plants

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.