It is a shame fragrance is an often overlooked characteristic when we choose plants for our gardens. A scent can evoke precious memories. The first whiff of lilacs sends me time traveling to my childhood home cutting my mother’s lilacs for bouquets. The sweet perfume of peonies rouses images of my mom walking arm in arm with her mom through her garden.
When we want to add fragrance to our gardens, flowers like lilacs, roses and peonies are probably the first plants that come to mind. These, and the flowers of many other shrubs and perennials, enrich the garden experience with their sweet scents.
But flowers – and their fragrances – are fleeting so what are we to do once their blooms fade? If we plant an assortment of plants with fragrant foliage, we can enjoy their aromatic leaves from spring through fall.
A member of the mint family, the square stems of Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) present grey-green leaves sporting the scent of spicy licorice. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love their flowers in summer as much as we do. Grow Anise hyssop in well-drained soil in full sun.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is another mint family member. Its leaves release a minty fragrance when crushed or bruised. Newer cultivars are resistant to powdery mildew – a common problem in older varieties. Bee balm is happiest when it is basking in sunshine and its roots are growing in moist soil.
A plant synonymous with fragrance, English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) is commercially planted for use in perfumes. Both the foliage and the flowers are replete with the fragrance of – you guessed it – lavender. It is crucial to plant English lavender in very well-drained soil, especially in winter, and in full sun.
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is radiant in the late summer landscape. Upright stems carry deeply-divided gray foliage smelling like a fusion of lavender and sage. Russian sage grows best in very well-drained soil and full sun.
The fern-like foliage of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) bears a spicy aroma similar to that of chrysanthemums. Newer cultivars have strong stems and large flowers in white, yellow, pink, orange or red. Sturdiest stems occur in a sunny spot with lean, well-drained soil.
Plant creeping thyme (Thymus) in the spaces between flagstones in a path or patio and breathe in its minty scent with every step. Small pink or purple flowers top the carpet of foliage in summer. Creeping thyme is adaptable to a variety of growing conditions – full sun to light shade and in average to dry soils.
There is a multitude of herbs with fragrant foliage. These are my favorite.
It’s hard to pass by a sweet basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) without stroking its leaves and breathing in its distinctive scent. Some believe it smells like cloves; others describe its fragrance as a mix of pepper, anise and mint. I think it just smells like basil. Basil prefers rich, moist but well-drained soil and to grow in full sun. Fertilizing is necessary to give plants the energy to repeatedly regrow harvested leaves.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ) is another herb with a distinctive aroma. A spicy pine fragrance is released when the grey-green needle-like foliage is caressed. Rosemary grows into evergreen shrubs in warm zones, but must be brought indoors for the winter in the Midwest. If asked, it would choose a site with full sun, but grows satisfactorily in part shade. It must be planted in well-drained soil in the garden or soilless potting mix in a container. Allow rosemary to dry out between watering.
All varieties of mint (Mentha spp.) smell minty mixed with the additional fragrance of their specific cultivar. Chocolate mint smells much like a chocolate mint cookie. Spearmint mint smells like Doublemint chewing gum; the cultivar Peppermint smells like the hard candy. Unless you have a large space for these aggressive growers to run, plant mints in pots to keep them in bounds. They thrive in sun or part shade.
Position plants with fragrant foliage along paths where their scents can be appreciated as bruised leaves unfetter their fragrances. Add a bench nearby where garden visitors can sit and breathe in their enchanting scents. Plant them in pots that can be stationed on decks or patios where eager noses can inhale their perfumes.
Make a note in your garden journal to add more plants with fragrant foliage to your landscape this spring. Garden with me!