Fragrance Enhances Garden Enjoyment

by Fil Jessee

             A late afternoon stroll through a garden with no perfume is something like a trip to a beach with no waves, disappointing to say the least.   Yet, like many other elements in a well-designed landscape, the addition of fragrance can be over-done.

Strategic placement of scent-producing plants, trees and shrubs is just as important as selecting the varieties you find most appealing.   A comfortable distance up wind from a deck or patio, for example, might be a perfect spot for a grouping of gardenias.   Too many too close to these gathering spots, on the other hand, could prove as objectionable as being in an elevator with some lady who just took a bath in Channel.

Plantings which emit more subtle scents are better suited for close-up enjoyment, while those producing stronger perfume will generally be more congenial from a distance.

Another important factor to consider is your own day-to-day schedule.   If you work from nine to five and seldom have time to enjoy your backyard before dusk, planting something that scents the air at midday only doesn’t make much sense.

You’ll get far more enjoyment from your labors if you select specimens which put on their best performance after dark.  The opposite is true if you work the night shift.

One of my favorite shrubs for fragrance also makes an attractive foundation specimen close to the deck or patio, but far enough back where it does not require much trimming.  It is commonly called sweet tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans), and its day and night perfume is anything but demure.   In fall, this shrub produces thousands of tiny greenish yellow blooms in clusters, but often blossoms less profusely in the spring as well.  I generally describe its unique perfume as a combination of Lemon Pledge furniture polish and Old Spice cologne.   It makes a fine evergreen screen when fairly young, and can be pruned to attractive tree form when older.  Tea olive makes a perfect companion for camellias, adding a third dimension to their colorful but scentless flowers. Other species of Osmanthus produce an equally pleasant but less far-reaching fragrance in the heat of the summer, but don’t really get going with this until they are quite large and mature.  The most common of these is aptly named false holly (O. heterophyllus).

Many homeowners with decks high above the ground may wish to consider several vines for fragrance.   These can either be trellised between the ground and the bottom of the deck or trained on wires attached to the upper rails.    Among the best candidates for this usage, confederate jasmine is a popular favorite with peak flowering between May & June, and sporadic repeats thereafter.   Five-petaled white blooms are born in loose clusters, and emit a sweet citrus-like scent.  This vine performs best in partial shade, and prefers a location protected from severely cold winds.  With the exception of the slightly more cold tolerant variety, “Madison,” this jasmine can be killed to the ground by single digit temperatures.   Once well-established, however, it will normally make a fast come-back if you cut it back and maintain a good water & fertilizer regimen to hasten recovery.

For a much bolder effect in a fragrant vine, I can’t think of a better choice than Armand Clematis (Clematis armandii).   Its individual 2.5-inch white flowers are produced in great abundance between mid-March and mid-April, and perfume the air with a scent so much like orange blossoms, a Floridacitrus grower probably couldn’t tell the difference.  But the fragrance of this clematis isn’t its only claim to fame as a botanical imposter.  The large shiny green leaves which trail downward in lush clusters give this vine the appearance of a jungle liana, more at home in Brasil than Braselton.  Yet, it’s as tough as nails in our area, and only rarely suffers wind burn from cold artic blasts.  Just give it plenty of elbow room, and don’t plant it too close to your bistro table and umbrella set.   The vine may swallow it whole while you’re away on vacation.

Another good choice for fragrance is Hawaii’s white or butterfly ginger, used often for lei making.   You’ll find it wild and plentiful along many Big Island roads from Hilo to Kona and, yet, it is remarkably hardy as a perennial here in northeast Georgia.   In Climate Zone 7b gardens,  it’s as tough as cannas.  Butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) is guaranteed to bring more aloha spirit into your back yard than a troupe of hula-girls from the Polynesian Cultural Center.   From August until frost, every mature five to six-foot tall stalk will be crowned with a terminal cluster of waxy-white flowers, each shaped just like a butterfly.    With the onset of every warm summer night, these blossoms emit a powerful scent something like a combination of gardenia and honeysuckle but a lot stronger.  Moved by a little breeze, the fragrance can be enjoyed a block away.

My wife likes to cut the stalks, and place them in a large globe of water on the dining room table.   They will continue to produce fresh flowers there every night, perfuming our living quarters for weeks at a time.  I hate it when she does that.  The cats can’t find their litter box, and the whole house smells like Pier One Imports.