The Nose Knows -July 2009

Fragrant flowers and shrubs on Nantucket

by: Hilary Newell

The smell of a flower can trigger an onslaught of memories and emotions, whether it is the scent of a certain rose that reminds you of someone, the heady fragrance of a lilac that brings to mind the Memorial Day parade in your hometown, or the whiff of patchouli that reminds you of the Grateful Dead concert you went to in the summer of ’79.

Certain smells can influence your mood or your work performance, depending on what memories have been stirred up. The sense of smell is the most highly-developed of the five senses, creating the perfect reason to surround yourself with fragrances you enjoy. I was sitting on my porch swing last summer creating a list of topics for this gardening series, and this particular topic became as clear as the nose on my face as the scent of fragrant abelia wafted across the porch.

Abelia mosanensis is an underused shrub that does really well in Nantucket gardens. It’s very hardy and doesn’t have any preference for any specific soil. It will grow in sandy, dry soils or heavy clay soils and can live in sun to part shade. The white, funnel-shaped flowers are about an inch long, and they bloom on new growth. Ours responds well to a fairly hard pruning after it blooms in June. The fragrance is lilac-like and on a large shrub there can be hundreds of flowers, so you will definitely be drawn to it when you walk by. It can grow to three to five feet and has the added benefit of colorful fall foliage.

The lilac is another unbeatable shrub if you are looking for something fragrant. You will be in good company if you grow lilacs. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had them in their gardens, as they were beginning to be found on this continent as early as 1750. Varieties were imported from Europe and were particularly popular in New England. Some hardy varieties are extremely long-lived, and if you are driving on some back roads in New England, it’s possible to see bushes that are 150 years old or older. The farmhouse may be gone, but seeing a large lilac at the edge of some woods could be a sign that you have located an extremely old specimen.

The lilac capital of the United States is Rochester, New York. Highland Park, in that city, has been the location of a two-week lilac festival for years. They have 1,200 bushes of 500 varieties, on 155 acres. Rochester, New Hampshire also calls itself the Lilac City, and the lilac is their state flower.

There are over 1,000 varieties and they come in a range of colors from pure white to the deepest purple. Purple, white, pink and lilac are the most popular. Choosing varieties that bloom early, mid-season and late-season will let you have these deliciously-perfumed shrubs blooming for up to six weeks. The weather has a great impact on blossom time and length, with hotter weather causing them to fade more quickly. Pruning should be done immediately after the blooms fade. The buds set very early for the following year, but they are not visible. If it’s time to prune off the dead flowers, it’s time to prune the whole plant.

For a highly-scented shrub to enjoy on and around Mother’s Day, plant a Viburnum carlesii, also known as Korean spice viburnum. This plant has so many delightful characteristics, it is a must-have in any garden that will ever own me. Around the end of April, you will observe the waxy buds beginning to form, and as the temperatures rise with the advent of spring, the buds will develop into an umbel, fading from pink to white as they age. But the fragrance! It’s almost too cloying to stick your face in and take a deep breath, but I do anyway. It can be detected up to 30 feet away, and on a sunny day, it will waft all through the yard, sneaking in any open windows, and make you want to walk right over and savor it. The flowers are followed by red fruit, drawing birds to the yard. Its wine-red foliage is a bonus in the fall.

Mock orange (Philadelphus) is an old-fashioned, long-lived shrub that is very popular in parks and public gardens. These plants bloom very reliably in the late spring with single, clear-white flowers with a sweet fragrance reminiscent of citrus blossoms – hence its common name. The California native, Philadelphus gordonianus, can grow to 20 feet, but most other species range from four to eight feet, the range being wide enough that you could place a mock orange in any part of the garden, either as a specimen, or mixed in a border of other flowering shrubs. The best-known species is Philadelphus coronarius, a native of southern Europe. Most varieties will grow in a vase shape, making a nice privacy screen when three or five are grouped together. Widely planted in the past, the mock orange deserves a place in today’s scented garden.

One of the most noticeable of the native scented shrubs on the island is the American fly honeysuckle. Ubiquitous along many of Nantucket’s roads, this somewhat-invasive species blooms in spring and fills the air with the scent of honey. The bees love it, and there’s something special about pulling off one of the millions of blossoms to suck the nectar out of the flower. This species is Lonicera canadensis, not to be confused with that truly-invasive climbing species Lonicera japonica Halliana.

The perennial garden is a perfect place to add some scent, too. Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata) is one of the earliest-blooming ground covers with a scent. Our woodland garden is carpeted with this dainty, white, hardy perennial, underscoring rhododendrons and deciduous azaleas. It is a spreader, but doesn’t seem to invade anywhere I don’t want it to. Galium’s fragrance doesn’t come from the flower, but from its one-inch leaves. Stepping on the plant at the edge of the garden releases its delicate scent. One of the surprise benefits we’ve discovered is that where the sweet woodruff is established, poison ivy finds it difficult to pop up through. Poison ivy doesn’t compete well in cultivated gardens, but we’re still very careful when we get in there to weed.

Flowering tobacco, nicotiana, is an all-time favorite in the scented-plant world. While hybridizers have taken their toll on the scent in newer varieties, the heirloom nicotianas, like N. alata and N. sylvestris, still retain their original scent. As members of the nightshade family, nicotianas are all poisonous: flowers, stems and leaves included. Nicotiana tabacum, which grows to six feet, is the tobacco plant used in making cigarettes. N. sylvestris might be the closest cultivated variety to this. Flowers are two inches wide at the mouth, but there is a tubular neck that can be several inches long. These often attract very long-beaked pollinators that are rather interesting to observe. The hawk moth hovers around the opening of the flower, uncurling its long proboscis to reach the deep nectar. Hummingbirds can also be observed dipping their beaks deep into the flowers. N. sylvestris can reach five feet tall, and the giant leaves smell unmistakably of tobacco. N. alata grows two to four feet tall and releases its scent at night. These beauties close during cloudy weather, and range in color from white to rose, pink, purple, salmon and cream. A tender perennial in the South, nicotiana is an annual in the North. They’re easy to grow from seed, and can be started either indoors in April or sown directly outdoors after the danger of frost has passed. Transplant them into an area under a window so the scent can waft inside on the evening breeze. We like to plant them at the edge of our woodland garden where they get dappled sun and will bloom happily until frost.

Occasionally when walking, you may find a patch of lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). This close relative of the native species spreads by underground rhizomes called stolons. They can be purchased as “pips” and planted in the fall for spring bloom. The lovely scent is recognizable from quite a distance, and since your nose can smell directionally, it can lead you right to the patch. The slender stalks carry a row of tiny fringed bells that will fill your house with fragrance when bunched with a few other stems.

Another reliable perennial bulb that will give you fragrance is the Oriental lily. If you have a deer problem, skip this section. If, however, you are lucky enough to be sheltered from these rodents with antlers (as described by a local physician), Oriental lilies are easy and satisfying to grow. Plant these large bulbs in the fall, feed them like any bulb, and in the spring, large buds will pop out of the ground. Water and feed, and wait until one of the flowers opens to cut. It is important to leave enough foliage for the lily to ripen. If the foliage is all gone, photosynthesis can’t occur and the plant may not produce flower buds for the following year.

Perennial phlox is an old-fashioned favorite in the scented-garden world. Popular in Victorian times, phlox was used in small nose-gays called tussie-mussies, held to the nose to ward off other, less-enjoyable scents. When given as a gift, phlox was meant to convey love, or to wish someone “sweet dreams.” Most varieties of Phlox paniculata are scented. A couple varieties of note are David, a mildew-resistant white, and its newer counterpart Lavender David. Another well-known fragrance in the garden is dianthus. These could be the low-growing “pinks,” or the taller Sweet William, which makes an exceptionally long-lasting cut flower.

Heliotrope arborescens has some common nicknames that reflect how a person observes the scent. “Cherry pie plant” is one of my favorites that I’ve heard from residents of the British Isles. I know someone else who thinks they smell like baby powder. Colored either lilac or white, these make great container plants. Set some near the door you use most frequently and you’ll get a whiff of cherry pie whenever you walk by. It prefers lots of morning sun, and does best if protected from afternoon rays. Heliotrope needs to be fed regularly in order to maintain its blooms all summer.

Not all scented plants have pleasant fragrances, though. There are a few types of hoya (Indian rope) whose flowers smell like rotten meat, inviting flies to be the pollinators. Amorphophallus is another really unusual plant that has some species that stink. Difficult to grow in the North, some botanical gardens experiment with it in their greenhouses, and celebrate with open-houses where visitors have to get up on ladders to look down on the inside of the plants (while holding their breath).

I prefer the romantic scents given off by the more common outdoor plants discussed here. There are so many scented plants that it would be impossible to discuss them all in one place, but careful thought given to the use and placement of these shrubs and smaller plants can stir up or create some scented memories of your own.

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett’s Farm and compiles “The Farm Dirt” each week.

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