Califonia Bountiful

Scents of the season

November/December 2021 California Bountiful magazine

A year of scented plants

Gardeners and landscape designers always think about size and hardiness and flower color and bark and shape when designing and planting a garden. But there is another dimension worth considering: scent. It's easy to include a few shrubs, trees, perennials and bulbs with scented leaves or flowers.

Herbs are one of the easiest ways to incorporate scent into the garden. Culinary sage, for example, is a beautiful plant with its silvery gray foliage. Remember to plant your scented-leaved plants near a walkway so you can rub your hand across them as you walk to the house.

Most scented flowers release their scent into the air and share it with everyone. Others are called "fast" with their scent, meaning you have to stick your nose into the flower to smell anything.

Here are some of my favorite scented plants throughout the year. There are dozens and dozens more waiting to be discovered and planted in your garden.

January: Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox)

Most of the year, wintersweet fades into the background of the shrub border. It isn't flashy. The large leaves turn a pretty yellow in autumn, still not flashy. Come January, however, the bare branches will be covered with tiny, downward-facing, cup-shaped, waxy yellow flowers with a spicy, intoxicating fragrance. You'll be able to smell them long before you notice the shrub is in bloom. It's a tough shrub that can handle our summers and winters with little fuss. It grows about 6 feet tall, doesn't spread much and asks little in return except regular watering. Like most plants, it prefers a bit of afternoon shade.

February: Daphne (Daphne odora)

I have five Daphne odora aureomarginata shrubs planted along the front walkway to my house. They have gold edges to the leaves, rather than solid green. Daphnes can easily grow to 4 feet wide and about 3 feet tall, so I give them plenty of room to spread. They tolerate some pruning, but never look good if you have to whack them back to keep them from overtaking a walkway. They have a reputation for being finicky and for sometimes dying suddenly for no apparent reason. That reputation is well deserved. If your daphne dies, buy another and plant it in a different place. They appreciate regular watering, but don't require a lot. They also prefer morning sun, especially during our hot California summers. When my five daphnes are in bloom, the scent is almost overwhelming. I cut one tiny sprig of flowers to bring in the house.

March: Bearded irises (Iris germanica)

These are the common irises you see everywhere during the early spring. The classic purple ones are the first to appear, even before winter has finished. Next come the white ones. After that, it's full speed ahead, as irises in every hue and color combination steal the show. The flowers are scented, but you have to get close to appreciate it. Somehow, to me, the purple irises smell, well, purple.

They're called "bearded" because of the row of fuzzy hairs on each of the downward-facing petals. These drooping petals give insects a place to land and the colorful markings act as a guide to the nectar. The beards give bees and other insects a place to hang on.

Irises are tough plants to place. In bloom, they're beautiful. After that, the foliage can get a little tattered and tired, and in the middle of summer, they need to be cut back to the ground. Always plant irises among other plants, so conceivably you can disguise their dying foliage.

April: Heritage roses

Nothing beats the heavenly scent of old-fashioned roses. You could almost throw a dart at a list and come up with something you'll love. They're also called "old roses."

The definition of an old rose is one that existed before 1867. That was the year the first hybrid tea rose was introduced. They're a rather diverse group, but what most have in common is disease resistance and fragrance. They're divided into several classifications—damasks, gallicas, albas, floribundas, centifolias and moss, to name a few—and each comes with a bit of history and often a romantic-sounding name.

If you live near Sacramento, be sure to visit the world-renowned heritage rose garden in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery. The area near the Broadway entrance is filled with old roses and they're all labeled. One of my favorites is Duchesse de Brabant. It's a blousy pink rose. Legend has it this was Teddy Roosevelt's favorite rose, and he often had one in his lapel when they were blooming.

May: Jasmine (Jasminum officinale)

Mention fragrance, and almost everyone knows about jasmine. In textbooks, this jasmine is called the "common jasmine." I prefer the nickname "poet's jasmine." It's a mainly evergreen vine that dependably blooms from early summer into the fall. It's a great plant to clamber up a trellis. The long vines twine themselves around the trellis. It is an enthusiastic grower and should be cut back somewhat severely just before the spring growth begins. In bloom, one small sprig is enough to scent a room.

They have a long bloom period, often extending well into summer. They don't require a lot of water, but do best with regular watering. Deprived of water, they seldom flower.

June: Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides, also called Gardenia augusta)

When I was a child, I remember a gardenia planted outside the bedroom window. On hot summer nights when the plant was in bloom, the scent of the flowers would waft into the open windows. I love the smell of gardenias, and try as I might, I've never found a lotion or any gardenia-scented product to be close to the real thing.

The white flowers contrast nicely against the dark green foliage. Gardenias prefer acid soil, demand plenty of water and don't like to be jammed up against other plants. The variety called "Mystery" can grow as tall as 6 feet. Most, however, are mounding shrubs. They respond well to clipping, and even if you clip off the flower buds, the plant will produce flowers lower on the stems. They are mainly cold-tolerant, but in higher elevations there will be frost damage. If it isn't severe enough to kill the plant, you can just cut away the bad bits when spring arrives.

July: Lavender (Lavandula sp.)

Whether it's English lavender, Spanish lavender, French lavender or fernleaf lavender, I love them all. I love the dusty, sweet scent of both the leaves and the foliage.

English lavender makes the long-stemmed flowers perfect for cutting. Cut this one back severely after bloom. Even so, it only produces well for about seven or eight years before it should be replaced. Spanish lavender likes to sprawl and be left alone. It doesn't like being cut back, but has the showiest flowers. French lavender blooms for most of the year, and fernleaf lavender has pretty foliage, earning its name honestly.

Lavender is native to the Mediterranean and thrives in dry, sunny locations. That doesn't mean plant it and forget it. Lavender can die from lack of water as easily as any plant, especially when first planted. It attracts bees and butterflies. I like to plant lavender alongside a path so I can brush against its leaves as I walk by. It's a very relaxing, heady scent.

August: Scented geraniums (Pelargonium sp.)

I will never have a garden without scented-leaved geraniums. They're grown exclusively for their multitude of wonderfully fragrant leaves: rose, lemon, peppermint and more. You won't find them on many landscaper or developer lists, but gardeners who discover these delightful plants want to collect as many as possible—and there are hundreds from which to choose.

The flowers are mainly pink and small, unlike their common geranium cousins. They're great minglers among roses and perennials, aren't fussy about soil and are cold-hardy to about 25 degrees. Classified as half-hardy perennials, scented geraniums also vary in growth habit and leaf shape. The peppermint geranium, for example, boasts a soft, downy leaf, whereas the lemony P. crispum has a tiny, bright green crinkled leaf. P. 'Mabel Grey' has large, rough leaves. Some sprawl and creep along the ground; others make low borders. Some grow straight and tall; others become lanky. They do well in pots.

September: Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)

Every September, I plant snapdragons. I buy pony packs of pink ones, white ones, yellow ones, whatever I can get, and I fill one of the raised beds in the vegetable garden with snapdragons. They grow and bloom all winter. Most people don't know the flowers are scented. Some smell spicy, whereas others have a sweet fragrance. The trick is, you have to stick your nose in the flower. And don't forget: They really do snap when you squeeze the sides of the flower together.

Snapdragons are good in other parts of the garden, too. They make great border plants and are even better in generous clumps. The plants I put in the garden in September continue to grow and bloom until it's time to pull them out and plant vegetables instead. I've found if I leave the flowers to go to seed, I will have many volunteer snapdragons to begin the new season.

October: Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus)

This camellia-like shrub/small tree keeps its shiny leaves all year so always looks tidy. It will eventually grow to about 10 feet tall.

Sometime around October, perhaps as late as November, you'll suddenly notice a light, sweet fragrance in the air. You'll be able to trace the scent to the osmanthus. My osmanthus is planted in the back of the house, but when I get out of the car in the front of the house, I smell its heady scent and know it's blooming. This is one plant from which the scent travels; you might not smell anything next to the plant unless you stick your nose in the flowers. The apricot-colored flowers are tiny, threadlike and in clusters. It's a slow-growing, small tree. I look forward to each October because I know the osmanthus will be in bloom.

It prefers afternoon shade or the leaves can burn. If it does get a lot of afternoon sun, make sure the plant receives regular, deep watering. It rarely needs any pruning.

November: Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Its name means "dew of the sea," and in parts of the Mediterranean where it grows on seaside cliffs, that's all the water it gets.

Every garden should have at least one rosemary plant, especially in California. This plant epitomizes the definition of Mediterranean plants: It tolerates a wide range of soils, can take all the heat the California sun throws at it and likely can do so without any supplemental water once established.

I can testify to that. Some of my rosemary plants get water, but I have some on a low hillside that get only what Mother Nature provides during our rainy season.

Rosemary comes in two growth habits: prostrate and upright. Prostrate forms trail along the ground and grow roots as they go. The upright forms can reach up to 6 feet in height. Both are equally fragrant. The flowers are mainly blue, although some varieties have been developed with white flowers and dark blue flowers. They attract scores of bees, so make a great plant for those wanting to give Mother Nature a helping hand attracting pollinators and beneficial insects. They are disease-resistant and are hardly ever bothered by deer or insects. I occasionally get spittlebugs on my rosemary, but they are easily washed away with a garden hose. I do cut old growth back regularly to encourage new growth and prevent the plants from becoming too woody. And because they root as they trail along the ground, a single plant can cover a lot of territory. Unless you want a garden solely comprised of rosemary, you'll have to do some yearly pruning and cutting back.

Bottom line: Who doesn't love the scent of rosemary?

December: Christmas box or sweet box (Sarcococca confusa)

This one really is in bloom at Christmas time, and its vanilla-scented flowers will keep appearing through March. The plant has dark, polished green leaves and always looks neat. The flowers appear on the undersides of the stems, so you'll smell them before you see them. Once the flowers are gone, the plant produces small, blackberry-like fruit.

Christmas box prefers afternoon shade and is great for planting under oaks or other trees, because it doesn't demand a lot of water. However, it is not a drought-tolerant plant and does need regular watering. It is native to the Himalayas and to China. This plant is a great addition to the winter garden, because it is always handsome and produces fragrant flowers when most plants are in their winter dormancy.

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