Home & Garden Design
Publication Date: Thursday, August 11, 2005
Scent throughout the year
Aromatic plants can enhance garden enjoyment

photos and text by Janet Bell, APLD

In exploring what is important in the design of a garden, many consider fragrance a key component of success. We all have scents that we are drawn to -- perhaps from childhood memories or recollections of travels.


Among the scented varieties of rhododendrons is R. cubitti 'Ashcombe.'

There are many different types of scents -- the more subtle, such as flowering fruit trees, which fill the spring air with a vague sweet scent, and the more obvious, including gardenias, citrus trees, roses and jasmine. The following is a collection of scented plants you may want to include in your garden.

Living here in the Bay Area, we have the option of creating an ambiance specific to the California/Mediterranean garden. These aromatic plants can be included in the garden, either as a main theme, or interspersed with other plantings. Plants in this category include the many varieties of Ceanothus, or California lilac, which bloom in the spring with flowers from white to pale blue to deep blue. Other aromatic plants, blooming throughout the spring, summer and autumn include:

English lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) has a wide selection of varieties, which include different sizes (from 12 inches to 3-plus feet), different flower colors (from white to deep purple) and different foliage colors (greens and grays); French lavender (Lavandula dentata) is also very aromatic.

Aromatic Salvia 'Winnifred Gilman' grows 3 feet high and wide, sporting dark red flower stems and dark violet-blue flowers.

One of the strongest sages is Salvia clevelandii. Salvia spathacea (low-growing with magenta flower), Salvia guaranitica (4 to 5 feet tall with light or dark blue varieties), and many other varieties offer scents mindful of the California woodlands.

All varieties of rosemary are aromatic. Attractive varieties include 'Collingwood Ingram' (3 to 4 feet tall), Tuscan Blue (4 to 5 feet tall) and 'Ken Taylor,' a lower-growing variety.

Finally, Artemesia 'Powis Castle' (to 3 feet tall) and 'David's Choice' (to 1 foot tall), both gray, fine-textured plants, can be used in a mixed perennial to add unique texture and color.

Throughout the seasons, there are many plants that offer a variety of scents to spice up the garden. Starting in summer, Choisya ternata, Mexican orange, is an evergreen shrub, with small shiny leaves and small white flowers, a good background plant in the garden. Brugmansia, Angel's Trumpet, offers a sweet fragrance in the evening; flower colors include pink, white and yellow, on plants that grow to 12-feet tall. Brunfelsia pauciflora 'Floribunda,' with a common name of Yesterday-Today-and-Tomorrow, has flowers that turn from white to pale purple to deep purple. A deciduous plant, this grows to 10 feet, but can be kept smaller.

Michelia figo, a deep green evergreen shrub that can grow to 10 feet, has small white flowers that have a tropical, banana scent. Elaeagnus commutata or Silverberry, is a large arching shrub with leaves that have a shimmery texture. Its small, creamy colored flowers offer a strong scent. This is a background plant, which is very vigorous, and needs a lot of room. Nicotiana sylvestris, a perennial, which self-seeds, grows to 5-feet tall with fragrant white tubular flowers; leaves are large and sticky.

Autumn offers two of my favorites. Osmanthus fragrans, a large evergreen shrub with small white flowers, is a great screening shrub with deep green waxy leaves and a sweet tropical scent in the evening. Clematis terniflora, 'Sweet Autumn Clematis,' is a vigorous climbing vine, which produces wafts of small white flowers.

In addition to the bulbs (like narcissus and daffodils) of late winter/early spring, there are a number of shrubs that scent the air. Viburnum burkwoodi and V. carlesii, are large shrubs that offer strong, spicy scents. Daphne odora 'Marginata' is a favorite, a 2- to 3-foot shrub, whose small pink buds open to strongly fragrant white flowers. Whenever possible, I plant this next to the entry to a house, (morning sun only/should be protected the rest of the day during the summer months). Sarcococca ruscifolia, a 3-foot-tall dark green-leaved shrub has small white scented flowers -- good for a low hedge. A popular evergreen vine, Clematis armandi, offers a strong scent on a vine that takes a lot of work (cutting it back throughout the year due to its vigorous growth), but is worth it when it can bloom prolifically for a month typically in January/February.

Spring has many fragrant shrubs and perennials. Many people don't realize that there are a number of varieties of rhododendrons that are scented. 'Fragrantissimum' is a pale white variety with pink buds. The Maddenii series, which sports brown, peely bark and has an open growth pattern, offers many beautiful options, which bloom over a period of four to eight weeks.

The old favorites include the lilac (Syringa spp.), which brings back memories of the East and Midwest springs for many of us. Varieties that do well in California include 'Lavender Lady' and 'Blue Boy,' among others. Philadelphus spp. offers both 3-foot- and 8-foot-tall varieties, and single or double white flowers that fulfill their common name 'Mock Orange.'

Choosing vines, shrubs and annuals for their scent will supply an added dimension to your garden. I encourage trying out some of these plants, and spending some time sitting and enjoying them in your garden.

Janet Bell is the owner of Janet Bell & Associates, a local landscape design/construction/maintenance firm. She is also a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. She can be contacted at (650) 328-3400 or jbgarden@pacbell.net.