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Scents in the Garden

I must have fragrance in my garden or there doesn’t seem to be a need to garden. Memories of people, places and times are inescapably tied to fragrance, and there’s nothing as sweet as being reminded of a favorite person or pleasant time in one’s life by a scent on the wind. 

Sticking my nose into a petunia that has no scent is sort of like kissing someone through a screen door. All the parts of the scene are there but not the pleasure. So I shop for petunias in the evening when they are releasing their heavenly odors and I can determine just which ones do have that velvety, cinnamon-clove essence.

Some fragrances are just happy natural occurrences, such as the damp woodsy smell that wafts over me when I walk past the spruces and white pines in my yard. It instantly transports me to the damp coolness of my favorite Berkshire woods.

Then there are those scents we deliberately choose to have. One of my all-time favorites is Oriental lily, which carries me back to the lands of my childhood fantasies, full of knights and Arabian princesses. Sleeping in a room with a Stargazer lily floating in a bowl by the bedside induces wonderful dreams.

Oriental lilies are more heavily scented at night, so one year I decided to complement their scent beneath my office window with the sweet perfume of nicotiana, also fragrant in the evening. As the softness of dusk approached, the perfumes began to drift upward, teasing my nose with their embroidered odors. As the evening wore on, however, the combined scents became heavy, cloying and more than I could stand. I no longer felt like an Arabian princess but a nine year old who had wandered past the five and dime perfume counter, trying every cheap scent on one wrist. I moved the nicotiana.

I love placing scents so garden visitors turn their heads, looking for the source. We all know to bend over and sniff roses, but who knows that planting an overhead arbor with grapes makes wonderfully fragrant shade? Grape blossoms are sweetly scented, bringing spring weddings and flower girls to mind. Then when the grapes are fruiting, the ripe muskiness evokes another feeling entirely, that of the robust Tuscan countryside at harvest time.

We tend to think of perennial and annual flowers as scent producers, but many trees and shrubs have perfumed blossoms as well. Shrubs with scented stems and leaves include bayberry, sweetshrub and even magnolia. Walking around the garden rubbing a bayberry leaf or a flowering quince fruit will put an optimistic spring in your step.

 Russianolive is a tree I never recommend in the landscape because of its rangy nature, but I do like having one in the woods just for the essence of the blossoms. The scent sends me reeling back to the scrambling but lovely days of graduate school where the walk to the botany building was lined with them.

 And I love early summer when the lindens bloom. Their heady perfume makes you lift your nose into the air and your ears are assaulted simultaneously with the buzzing of a million bees enjoying the blossoms.

 And how can we not be reminded of the December holidays when presented with the scent of balsam or pine? I remember family Christmases when I smell common juniper since that was what my grandmother used to decorate her home.

Some scents make us melancholy, but others can lift the spirits to float on the wind. Nothing makes me hungry faster than brushing rosemary when working in the herb bed. Give me a little garlic and I’m set for the day. And I always smile when I detect the perfume of freesia. I love their scent so much that when I realized that the blossoms of Royal Star magnolia smell of freesias, I immediately planted one in my yard and have never been without one since.