Most garden plants look good, but how many offer a scent as captivating as their appearance? And how often do we actually detect a scent? A kind breeze sometimes brings one to our notice, or we bury our face into flowers for a whiff. Make fragrance a daily delight by lining a garden path with gorgeous, scented plants. The key is to use a variety that releases its perfume at different times of the year. Imagine your garden rising and falling through the seasons, with flowers, foliage, and scents ever changing. You’ll find yourself stopping to smell the garden every time you walk out the door, so you might want to kiss punctuality good-bye.
Wisteria’s scent is as good as it looks
Wisteria sinensis and cvs.
Wisteria’s fragrance is hard to describe; I’d say that it’s between that of sweet pea and vanilla jasmine. It’s something people should experience on their own. Wisteria can grow over a large arbor or be trained into a freestanding tree. It gets heavy, however, so if you place it on a trellis, make sure that the trellis is a strong one. Thinning out wisteria at least twice a year is required: once in late winter, and again after flowering to get rid of some of its leafy growth and to secure a strong floral display. Leaf buds should be shortened to three to five buds on each stem. They’re farther apart on long vigorous growth than flower buds, which are fat and close together on short flowering spurs.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 9
Size: 28 feet high and indefinite width
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil
‘Carol Mackie’ is the best of the fragrant daphnes
Daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’
Daphnes are cherished for their intense lemony aroma to which many other garden scents are compared. ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne blooms in early spring and gives off an especially strong fragrance, which might have you buying 10 more with which to line the rest of your path. Watering them can be a bit of a juggling act—water just enough to prevent the soil from drying out. Overwatering kills daphnes. This is probably how they earned a reputation for being difficult plants, but they’re a dream once you get the watering under control.
Daphnes hardly ever need pruning. But if you feel that you absolutely must prune, cut back only a few branches at a time. Because the plants are susceptible to fungal infection, cutting only a handful of branches leaves fewer points through which infection might enter. Cut on a dry morning, and apply fungicide afterward to lessen the risk of infection.
Zones: 4 to 7
Size: Up to 4 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; humus-rich, well-drained (but never dry) soil
Lily-of-the-valley exhibits a fragrant Napoleon complex
Convallaria majalis and cvs.
This little plant gives off a big-time fragrance. Don’t be duped by its short stature: You can savor its scent even while walking by upright. Plant it under larger plants for a mat of the sweetest-smelling ground cover around. One bulb fills a 4-inch-square space in the first season, but the plant will spread, over time, by underground rhizomes. Four or five plants will rapidly fill in to create a dense and fragrant patch. Small red berries appear on the plant in fall, when lily-of-the-valley should be divided to maintain vigorous growth.
Zones: 2 to 7
Size: 9 inches tall, spreading indefinitely
Conditions: Full sun to full shade; humus-rich, moist soil
There’s no spring scent quite like that of Bridal Bouquet® abelia
Abelia mosanensis ‘Monia’
Its strong fragrance can waft down 15 feet of path, so Bridal Bouquet® abelia is the go-to shrub for those looking for a fragrance factory. Its arching habit looks splendid in the middle of a bed, where it blooms from late spring to early summer, with its lilac-scented pink buds opening into tiny white trumpets. Red, orange, and yellow leaves make up for its loss of scent in fall. After letting Bridal Bouquet® establish for three or four years, remove one-third of its oldest canes annually after flowering to keep its size manageable.
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil
Evergreen clematis will fill an arbor with its aroma
So you’re after an aromatic climber. Look no further than evergreen clematis, which produces vanilla-scented white flowers in midspring. Its leathery leaves hang down in a showy, dark green cascade all year long. It’s best to train evergreen clematis over an arbor or pergola so that it can be enjoyed from within the structure. It grows slowly in its first couple of years, but after that, I’ve seen the vine take off and reach 30 feet tall in Zones 7 and 8. Prune evergreen clematis after its flowers fade; it blooms on the tips of the previous season’s growth, so pruning it later in the season will sacrifice the following year’s flowers.
Zones: 7 to 11
Size: Up to 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil
Harlequin glory bower is a plant of many perfumes
Clusters of creamy white flowers fill the canopy of harlequin glory bower in early summer and waft jasmine-like up to 25 feet away. But the scents don’t stop there. If the leaves are crushed, they release a peanut-buttery smell, which is why the shrub is also known as peanut butter bush. If that doesn’t make harlequin glory bower exotic enough, its berries surely will. When spent flowers fall away, a turquoise blue berry appears. Each one is surrounded by red sepals, creating a breathtaking display until they are eaten by birds. Grow harlequin glory bower as a tree or multistemmed shrub. As a shrub, its outer branches sometimes create a bower (hence, the name). You’ll also get more flowers—and fragrance—in the shrub form.
Zones: 7 to 9
Size: 15 to 20 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist, well-drained soil
The aromas of Oriental lilies are as classic as an Austen novel
When it comes to Oriental lilies, my motto is “The more, the better.” Their scent is well known and loved, and it is strongest in the afternoon when sunlight warms the flowers and gets their fragrance going. Groups can be tucked into almost any spot along a path. Place them either in the middle layer of the bed for height or right up at the edge to encourage passersby to stick their nose into the glorious flowers. Some great lilies include ‘Casa Blanca’, which is the best white variety; ‘Star Gazer’ (pictured), a great cut flower for bouquets; and ‘Conca d’Or’, a beautiful yellow lily—and my absolute favorite.
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 1 to 6 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
‘Black Negligee’ actaea offers dark leaves and an alluring scent
Actaea simplex ‘Black Negligee’
‘Black Negligee’ actaea smells slightly fruity with baby-powder overtones; that sounds odd, but it’s really a pleasant scent. The foliage is purplish black, lacy, and sexy. By midsummer, tall wands are covered with small white flowers. Plant ‘Black Negligee’ at a path’s edge so that its exquisite leaves and sweet scent can be appreciated. If the stems are left to go to seed in fall, birds will perch and peck away at them all winter long.
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide
Conditions: Partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
Chaste tree: A plain name for a seductively scented shrub
Vitex agnus-castus and cvs.
Chaste tree is a large multistemmed shrub that blooms in early fall, perfect for adding scent and color to a garden bed as it comes down from its summer high. The soft blue flowers give off a sagelike fragrance and resemble those of a butterfly bush or lilac. Chaste tree also makes a lovely addition to fall bouquets. Because it blooms on current season’s wood, pruning should be done in early spring and only if a specimen really needs downsizing. Don’t let bare branches trouble you in spring; chaste tree doesn’t leaf out until early summer.
Zones: 6 to 9
Size: Up to 25 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
‘Pink Dawn’ viburnum has color and fragrance in winter
Viburnum bodnantense ‘Pink Dawn’
This plant blooms on bare branches, its beautiful pink flower clusters appearing from early to midwinter. Its spicy-yet-sweet fragrance is a novelty in winter, when outdoor scents are few and far between. In spring, its leaves emerge burgundy with prominent veins; they age to green in summer and wine red in autumn. ‘Pink Dawn’ viburnum really is a plant for all seasons. Although it can tolerate partial to full shade, it does best in full sun; otherwise, its intense fall color will be compromised.
Zones: 5 to 8
Size: Up to 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
You’ll smell fragrant sweet box before you see it
This evergreen blooms in the dead of winter when it spreads its scent up to 40 feet in all directions. Walking in the garden on a winter day, you’ll stop in your tracks when you detect its scent—an anomaly in chilly weather. Fragrant sweet box is a tough shrub that loves dry and shady conditions. It grows faster than the common Himalayan sweet box (S. hookeriana, Zones 6–9), and it blooms three weeks earlier, too. For those reasons, fragrant sweet box is the better choice for fragrant paths.
Zones: 8 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Partial to full shade; moderately fertile, moist, well-drained soil
Forget snow—wintersweet is the key to a winter wonderland
Chimonanthus praecox and cvs.
As its common name suggests, wintersweet is a winter bloomer. Its soft yellow flowers surround the plant with a lemony scent. Cut just one or two twigs and bring them into the house to fill a room with perfume. Keep this gentle giant in a sheltered spot away from harsh winds. If it gets blasted with a wind before it blooms, its flower buds might freeze and fade away. Be sure wintersweet gets at least five to six hours of sunlight daily; any less and you’ll have all leaves and no flowers. When pruning, remove one-third of the biggest and oldest canes to the ground to keep those blooms at nose level.
Zones: 7 to 9
Size: 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil
Intensity Determines Placement
Success smells sweeter when fragrant plants are arranged with strength in mind.
Scented vines, like wisteria and evergreen clematis, are best appreciated within the protection of an arbor or pergola, where winds are less likely to sweep away perfumes.
Midrange fragrant plants, like harlequin glory bower, Oriental lilies, daphne, and abelia, spread scent 10 to 25 feet in all directions. Use them in a fragrant mix right against a walk.
Tiny plants, such as lily-of-the-valley, can be incorporated into window boxes to lightly perfume a room through an open window.
Heavily fragrant plants can overwhelm a garden and even send scent indoors. Fragrant sweet box falls into this group and should be planted with consideration.
Tender plants, like winter-sweet, need the protection of a courtyard or southern-facing wall so that their scents aren’t blown away by winter winds and they themselves aren’t harmed.
Danielle Ferguson and her family own and operate Ferguson’s Fragrant Nursery in St. Paul, Oregon.
Photos: www.millettephotomedia.com; Saxon Holt; Jerry Pavia; Derek St Romaine Garden Photo Library; Michelle Gervais; Bill Johnson; Joshua McCullough/www.phytophoto.com; Susan A. Roth. Illustration: Martha Garstang Hill
- Arrowhead Alpines, Fowlerville, Mich.; 517-223-3581; www.arrowhead-alpines.com
- B & D Lilies, Port Townsend, Wash.; 360-765-4341; www.lilybulb.com
- Fieldstone Gardens, Vassalboro, Maine; 207-923-3836; www.fieldstonegardens.com
- Forestfarm, Williams, Ore.; 541-846-7269; www.forestfarm.com
- Woodlanders, Aiken, S.C.; 803-648-7522; www.woodlanders.net
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