Plantings for good scents

By Tom Seymour | Feb 20, 2014
Courtesy of: Tom Seymour Bouncing Bet, or Old Maid's Pinks, have a sweet fragrance.

Many flowers attract pollinating insects by visual appeal. Brilliant colors and specific shapes all play a major role in attracting insects. But scent also has a major role in bringing in insects. Some flowers combine visual effects with scent for a multi-pronged approach to attracting pollinators. Other flowers release their fragrance primarily at night in order to attract moths. Some of these flowers are bright white, a color known to draw in moths.

Not all plant scents are located only in flowers. Lots of herbs have fragrant leaves. These, too, deserve a place among other, perhaps showier, types of plants. Basil and lemon balm come immediately to mind here. There are many others.

Incorporating Scents

For all too many gardeners, flower selection is primarily based solely upon visual appeal, that is plants are a certain color, shape and also, size. Taller plants to the back, medium in the middle and short in front is a basic recipe for a bed. Also, a plant’s blooming season holds an important place in garden planning. But by adding a plant’s fragrance to the mix, we impart an entirely different dimension to our garden planning, one that only adds to the pleasure and enjoyment of a well-thought-out garden design.

But just as we must take a cautious approach to garden planning regarding form, color, size and season, we dare not be willy-nilly in our planning for fragrant plants either. Just as plunking a few dozen assorted flowers in a bed with no thought to the finished product can result in botanical pandemonium, we need to consider carefully what fragrances we want and where we want them.

Think about this. Siting several very fragrant plants near each other effectively negates the impact of the individual plants. Instead of being (pleasantly) arrested in our tracks when passing near a particularly fragrant plant, we instead detect a blend of scents that feature opposing, or clashing highlights. We might liken this to someone pouring a half-dozen bottles of perfume into a bowl and then applying it in an attempt to become more attractive. The end result would be a cloying fragrance that was both unattractive and displeasing.

Each scented plant has a general range, or territory, in which its fragrance rules. Further away, it is barely noticeable. For instance, I once had a native plum tree in my front yard. When covered in its brilliant-white blossoms, the tree was a visual centerpiece. But its sweet scent overpowered everything else, it was that powerful and far-reaching. Besides that the tree grew beyond its intended space and so was removed. Now other, less forceful scents dot my gardens, each one worth taking time to sample all on their own.

A few plants, mostly groundcovers, while having clean and even powerful fragrances, need to be brushed against or perhaps even walked upon in order to release their scents. These can be planted in a wider range of situations because they don’t interfere, fragrance-wise, with other plants.

Powerful Scents

Just because they can overpower other plants, powerfully-scented plants do have a place in the yard and garden. Fragrant lilacs are a good example of this. When in full bloom, lilac scent dominates the landscape. But since lilacs only bloom for a short length of time, we can allow them to have their head and still not interfere with longer-blooming species.

Take for example the flowering crab near my house. This, a grafted, weeping-style variety, sports a practically impenetrable coat of bright-white flowers for perhaps 10 days each May. The fragrance from this tree wafts all about the property and can be detected from a considerable distance. But that’s okay, because not many other fragrant plants are blooming at the same time as my flowering crab.

Then we have nicotiana. This native plant comes with various colored blossoms. My favorite, Nicotiana alata, grows to five feet tall and produces large numbers of tubular, white flowers. These release their fragrance at night and walking by a moon garden of white flowers, with blooming nicotiana present, makes for a spellbinding experience.

Even in daytime, this nicotiana (and other types too) dominates the garden bed. The flower’s style, height and striking white color, serve well as a foil for dozens of other non-fragrant but visually-striking varieties.

And who can forget mint? My spearmint patch, which I keep in bounds with a mulching lawnmower, sits next to my house, directly across from the flowering crab. In summer and well into fall, just walking out the door and brushing against these tall plants, excites their fragrance. This quick, but not long-lasting burst of minty aroma provides an instant pick-me-up. I might mention that mowing the edges of my mint patch infuses the air with a clean, minty aroma.

Fragrance Remembered

Thinking back to my childhood years, I can envision different gardens. And much of what I remember about these early garden experiences has to do with what I smelled as much as what I saw. Roses, for instance, offer a variety of fragrances and many of these, although first encountered at a very early point in my life, remain indelibly etched in my memory. We remember fragrances, or at least our subconscious does, and when something tweaks that memory, it presents itself, as if the first experience with that fragrance was only yesterday.

Fragrances, like certain songs or instrumental musical compositions, play upon our emotions, too. Want to really remember a classic piece of literature? Then sit down, book in hand, on a garden swing or bench and let the fragrance of nearby flowers flow over and through your senses while reading. That book will never seem the same again.

Some fragrant plants were once used for more than just the enjoyment of their sweet aromas. For instance, costmary, Chrysanthemum balsamita, once known as “balsam herb” because of its pleasing scent, has insect-repelling properties and in particular, it repels the near-microscopic insects that eat and eventually destroy, paper. As such, costmary was once placed in between the pages of bibles to protect them from insects. The plant became known as, “bible leaf.”

Tansy, another herb, has a spicy, lively aroma. It, too, has insect-repelling properties. Tansy, along with a variety of other strongly-scented herbs, was once used as a strewing herb in public places. The plant was spread evenly on the floor and when walked upon, would release its insect-repelling scent. I still use tansy in this manner, by placing it around my picnic table. Does it really keep those pesky mosquitoes away? It’s hard to prove a negative, but it’s nice to imagine that tansy does help, at least a little bit.

So while thumbing through those garden catalogs this year, or when perusing plants at the local greenhouse or garden center, do take time to learn about each plant’s scent or fragrance. That will help to decide where it might go in your garden scheme. Besides that, some plant fragrances just plain deserve to become part of our lives.

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