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Gardens that make Scents
Centre of the City, Toronto, May/June 2005

Whether your backyard oasis is a sprawling poolside patio, a raised deck or a tiny back-door porch, bring the fragrance of your garden into your space with plantings that sooth, relax and de-stress.

If you’re lucky enough to have a seating area surrounded by gardens, add sweet scent with evening primrose and moon flower, that bloom and release their aroma at night. Bee balm (monarda), lemon verbena, joe pye weed and many varieties of phlox and daylily are all scented and easy to grow in our area.

Large fragrant plantings such as lilac and magnolia situated near your seating area are terrific, but just when it’s finally warm enough to sit outside, the blooms are gone. Consider them as great starting points, or strategically place them so the breeze will waft the scent into the house.

Smaller shrubs that are hardy to our area can bring you much more aromatic bang for your buck. The gas plant – an unfortunate name – also known as dictamnus albus ‘Purpureus’, produces aromatic oils are very fragrant on a hot summer night. The foliage is lemon-scented, but often irritating to the skin, so take care in selecting its location. This shrub grows up to 3 feet tall, blooms in early summer, and will tolerate sun and part shade, making it an excellent plant for next to the patio, along with Queen of the Prairie (filipendula rubra). Plant these next to ‘white forsythia’ (abeliophyllum distichum) that blooms in early spring for continuous fragrance. In early summer, some mock orange (philadelphus) shrubs are so heavy-laden with perfumed white flowers, the branches will bough gracefully.

Along a flagstone path, or in areas that get just a little foot traffic, consider planting the spaces between the stone with ‘walk-upon’ plants. Many of these sturdy little plants are quite fragrant when you step on them. Nepeta, or catmint, is a particular favourite. Plants that release a scent when you brush by them, such as lavender, are also good for edging the pathway.

Lavender and rosemary also perform well in urns or planters on the deck. Planting aromatic plants in large pots and grouping them in accordance with their bloom time will provide fragrance throughout the whole summer. Oregano and mint are very fragrant, but hard to eradicate once they get into the garden, so pots are an excellent option for them.

Create a display of plants that are either continuous bloom, or bloom at different times, provide you with colour and an ever-changing fragrance mix. Dianthus (mid-summer), dwarf marigold, and nicotiana (which does NOT smell like tobacco!), form a steady scented source of colour, and aromatic artemisia, with its pretty silver-grey colour, creates a striking contrast.

Vines in your lounging area are another great way to surround yourself with scent. Consider a trellis against the wall, or an arbour over the seating area, planted with several fragrant clematis. Different varieties bloom beginning in late spring through to fall, to provide constant colour and a lovely bouquet. Several honeysuckle varieties are also deliciously scented, but need a bit of support.

While we enjoy many aromas, they are often not at all alluring to insects, which may be why we embrace them even more. Marigolds, chives, sweet basil and garlic are examples of plants that bugs love to hate, mostly for their smell. Lemon thyme, citronella grass and some basil are thought to repel mosquitoes, but only if you crush the plants’ leaves. Sagebrush is often used as a moth repellent.

Plants that are just too interesting to pass up include chocolate cosmos, which really does smell like chocolate, and agastache rupestris, also known as the root beer plant. The ‘Glamis Castle’ rose has a strong myrrh fragrance. Iris graminea smells like plums, while iris foetidissima just plain smells. Eucalyptus has a lovely aroma when you touch it, and looks exotic even when you don’t.

And then there are plants whose fragrance is somewhat less than appealing. Lantana can have a strikingly beautiful and complex bloom, yet some people find it quite smelly. Valerian is said to have the odour of human perspiration. Skunk cabbage does not sound at all pleasant, but it gets worse – it actually smells not like skunk, but like decaying meat. Cypress has been described as ‘woodsy’ or ‘skunky’, perhaps making it a matter of personal taste. Mercifully, the stinkiest plants live mostly in the tropics or in greenhouses, so we don’t have to worry about them. Clearly ‘fragrance’ is in the nose of the inhaler.

If you think smelly plants are weird, consider this - researchers are currently studying whether some predator insects can ‘smell’ the scent of prey on a plant. For example, they say a wasp may ‘smell’ a caterpillar. While it might look to us like the wasp likes the aroma of the nearby plant, perhaps he’s just sniffing out a caterpillar dinner.


Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
Available now on Amazon.com