Pacific Northwest Regional Reports

Fragrant Foliage for the Northwest

The deeply scented leaves of these four selections deliver long-lasting aroma from season to season

fragrant foliage
The foliage of incense bamboo, escallonia, and heart-leaved disanthus provide fragrance from season to season. Photos: (left) courtesy of Bamboo Gardens; (middle and right) Susan Calhoun

Gardeners who live in the Northwest region will find the weather affects what they do from day to day. When the weather is gloomy, gray, wet, and cold, we run inside. When the sun shines, warming the air, we rush outside to garden, or sit and soak up the sun. This is when our senses take in the smell of fragrance in the garden. Every season has something unique to show us, whether blooming bulbs, shrubs, trees, or the more subtle scents from bark and leaves. Even well past their ultimate bloom time, there are plants whose foliage, not flowers, produce a lovely fragrance. Here are four great fragrant foliage plants for the Northwest.

Escallonia is a large shrub with a strong, complex fragrance. Photo: Susan Calhoun


Escallonia illinita, Zones 8–11

Escallonia is an evergreen shrub that is salt tolerant and works in many challenging situations. The small, shiny green leaves have a sticky feeling. A strong maple and curry scent emanates from the foliage. This fragrance is noticeable from across the garden. The flowers themselves have some summer fragrance, but fall is when the fragrance from the aromatic leaves becomes more noticeable. However, the foliage is fragrant year-round. With average garden moisture, escallonia can establish to 10 feet tall.

katsura leaves
Fragrance from katsura leaves fans out as the leaves drop in fall. Photo: Susan Calhoun


Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Zones 4–8

Katsura foliage has a softer, sweeter scent than escallonia. Light green in spring and pale yellow in fall, heart-shaped leaves give off the scent of cotton candy and caramel. The fragrance from the leaves permeates the surrounding area. Katsura has flowers that are insignificant in the spring with no noticeable scent, but its leaves have great fall color. Butter yellow leaves blushed with pink and orange create a silhouette in the setting sun that is impossible to ignore. The lovely leaves flutter in the breeze and drop to the ground, and the scent rises. Katsura is fragrant throughout the growing season to leaf drop. It can grow 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. It grows happily in full sun to partial shade with good moisture.

Incense bamboo
Incense bamboo is an already large bamboo that will spread over a wide area, diffusing its fragrance. Photo: courtesy of Bamboo Gardens

Incense bamboo

Phyllostachys atrovirginata, Zones 5b–10

This bamboo is known as incense bamboo because of its waxy-like foliage covering that smells like sandalwood. The sun warms the sides of the bamboo, and the wonderful, exotic scent reminds me of my younger days in the seventies. Incense bamboo is fragrant year-round. It needs lots of room to run, so be cautious about where you plant it in your home garden. It can grow 35 to 40 feet high, and average, moist soil is best.

Heart-leaved disanthus is small tree or shrub perfect for tight spaces. Photo: Susan Calhoun

Heart-leaved Disanthus

Disanthus cercidifolius, Zones 5-8

Heart-leaved disanthus, or redbud hazel, gives off a strong smell of sweet, buttery caramel. This smaller-scale shrub is seldom seen in cultivation now. Although it looks similar to a katsura tree (hence the species name cercidifolius) with its heart-shaped leaves, it is actually a member of the witch hazel family. This is a perfect shrub for a small garden, growing 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The autumn leaf color is yellow to start but becomes deep red and purple as the season progresses. Plant it in full sun to partial shade with some protection from strong winds. It is often planted at the edge of the wood, where the fall color looks remarkable in contrast to the woodland setting. Heart-leaved disanthus is fragrant until leaf drop.

—Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

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