I find myself transported to my youth everytime I smell Confederate jasmine blooming in mid-spring. My parents had it growing on a chicken wire trellis along our narrow Metairie driveway. And though it was heavily pruned to maintain a neat evergreen screen of dark green leaves it bloomed faithfully outside the kitchen window every spring. When the twisted white flowers opened they filled the air with a heavenly sweet scent. Open windows allowed the scent to fill our home and saturated our small yard and that of our neighbor’s.
Of our five senses -- sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, I believe smell to be the most evoking. It triggers memories from long ago and places you in locations not visited but maybe once in your lifetime. My daughter traveled to Australia as part of a school trip and to this day, everytime she smells eucalyptus, it reminds her of a cool summer day in the mountains in a eucalyptus forest. We all have stories because of plants and the unique fragrance their flowers and foliage produce.
For some plants, industries have evolved. Lavender in France and sites worldwide with a Mediterranean climate. Mint acreage in Indiana, Oregon and Washington. Tuberose from tropical sites. The list is endless. Fragrance is big business. So embrace fragrance when designing your landscape and selecting plants this spring. It will increase your overall enjoyment of the landscape and add yet another dimension to appreciating the little things in life.
People ask what my favorite plant is and I answer – with my answer changing daily. There are so many special plants out there it’s impossible for me to pick out just one plant. But I will try to do just that now. Here are my top ten favorite fragrant plants listed roughly in the order they bloom during the year.
Paperwhites (Narcissus). Not everyone likes narcissus or daffodil fragrance – I do. These bulbs can easily be forced indoors or grown in the garden. The only challenge with outside bulbs is that they will bloom from late December through January and their flowers need protection from extreme cold. A great way to get around this is to cut flowers and place them in a vase. Change water daily and do not place with any other flowers. Cut narcissus stems exude a chemical which shortens the life of other flowers. I recommend you find a source of heirloom bulbs to plant outside. They are hardier than newer varieties breed for the florist industry.
Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). It was love at first sight for me when visiting LSU Hilltop Arboretum and wondering where this clean, crisp, lemon scent was coming from. Not until former curator Marion Drummond pointed this plant out to me, I would have walked right by this large shrub with arching woody branches. The flowers are small and almost inconspicuous but what it lacks in flower power it more than makes up with a wonderful scent all happening during the bleak months of January and February.
Stock (Matthiola incana). This is a seldom seen cool season annual which is so unfortunate because it has such a prominent, spicy scent. Stock has a grayish leaf color that goes nicely with bright colors which is why I like to use it mixed with viola, petunia, alyssum and pansies. Search for stock next October and try a few in your landscape and containers. You won’t be disappointed.
Sweet peas (Lathyrum odoratus). My childhood home was surrounded by a cyclone fence making growing vining sweet peas an easy proposition. I added trellising to increase height. Planted in fall, with vines growing all winter long, buds open with colorful and fragrant flowers on long stems ideal for cutting. Keeping flowers cut to prevent seed production meant we had a vase of sweet peas inside from early spring to mid-May. When I came to Baton Rouge to attend LSU, I remember a corner lot on Highland Road that had bundles of sweet peas for sale for a quarter – on the honor system. Some of the modern day cutting varieties don’t have the intense fragrance of older, heirloom varieties. This may mean you’ll have to compromise a bit on flower stem length for extra fragrance.
Lemon (Citrus x ‘Meyers’). Grown in a container and protected during cold weather, you’ll be rewarded with citrus scented flowers almost year round with an added bonus of mild flavored, thin skinned lemons. All citrus produce sweet scented flowers but Meyer’s lemon repeats flower throughout the year. Container grown plants grow slower and smaller than trees planted outside but this is a good thing if you plan on moving it for winter time protection. If placed in a sheltered structure during winter be prepared to hand pollinate flowers due to the absence of honeybees.
Honeysuckle and Florida Flame deciduous azaleas (Rhododendron canescens and austrinum). These native azaleas lose their leaves when they go winter dormant only to awaken in spring with clusters of fragrant flowers at the tip of each branch just before leaves emerge. Plant in full sun for prolific blooms and like all azaleas, they prefer a well drained and low pH soil high in organic matter.
Frostproof Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides). You can’t have a southern garden without a gardenia. Sitting outside on a warm sultry night after the heat of the day wanes you might be surprised to smell a gardenia in your neighbor’s yard. Many fragrances become more intense at nightfall and early morning hours. For an extra treat, cut a flower and put in your car for a natural air freshener. Because flowers persist on the plant and do not shed after they die it is common to plant in a mixed landscape that will downplay this undesirable flowering habit.
White or Poet’s Jasmine (Jasminum officinale). A local nursery introduced this tropical vine to me and I’ve enjoyed it off and on over the years. Grow this in a pot with a small trellis for it to twine and climb. Clusters of small, but intensely scented flowers will appear summer and fall. One flower cluster will easily fill an entire room with the sweet smell of jasmine.
Single Tuberose (Polianthes tuberose). One ton of flowers produces only one liter of essential oil. This makes tuberose one of the most expensive oils used in the perfume industry. But you can have the same fragrance in your garden bed for 3 to 5 dollars. The foliage is unimpressive but when the tall flower spike arises out of the center of the plant you’ll know instantly. The yard will smell like a perfume factory. This is a dependable bulb in our climate that multiplies and repeats flowers. Different forms exist that bloom either in early summer or fall. Tuberose also comes with a double flower.
Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium coronarium). If you entertain outside at night then this common garden ginger is a must. Pure white flowers rise slightly above strap like medium green leaves on upright stems. The plant’s vertical appearance plays well in the landscape design providing an interesting contrast to rounded shrub forms. Plants have a long blooming season, from mid-summer all the way to first frost.