Living Perfumes

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Weaving Garden Fragrances

Many years ago, I wrote a book called Fragrance In Bloom, love child of my life-long fascination with floral scents. I was probably (ok, definitely) an odd kid, because I appreciated all kinds of aromas, not just roses and lilies. I loved sniffing plants and found those with complex odors as intriguing as those with straight up sweet ones. I’m still a scent hound, noticing the little shifts of smells at every turn on my daily walks. Right now, my neighborhood is rich with the mingled scents of fallen fruit and turning leaves. As I stroll around the block, the warm, light scent of ripening figs blends with late roses and the last of the summer phlox. The tumbling hearts of browning katsura leave have a milky, caramel perfume that’s echoed in the plump mahogany fruits of Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa), which smell and taste exactly like slightly scorched homemade butterscotch.

In my garden right now, as the strawberry foliage flames red, it releases the sugary scent of summer berries. As I weed between the pots and troughs, I could tell where I am even if blindfolded, since fennel and thyme, rosemary and sage release their distinctive odors even before I brush against them. That sense of place is a lot less challenging in this new tiny yard, where nothing is more than a few feet from anything else. Still, even in such tight quarters, it’s rewarding to arrange sequences of scent by partnering fragrant flowers and brisk foliage, whether buttery gardenias with spicy santolina or heady flowering tobacco with the warm bite of rosemary.

Listening With The Nose

For many of us, designing garden vignettes is all about contrasts of color, texture and form; those are indeed key principles, but adding in the fragrance factor makes any design more memorable. Some very charming gardens are made as much to be fragrant as beautiful; I’ve worked on such gardens for kids as well as for blind or color blind people. Creating symphonies of scent can be a sophisticated undertaking or as simple as edging a path with favorite herbs and flowers. Fragrance gardening is also a very fun way to get kids involved, especially of many of the scented things are edible (it’s definitely way more fun than weeding).

To help get kids started on a perfumed path of their own, I explain that people can learn to “listen” with their noses; that’s just weird enough to get their attention and we can go on to explore the garden with eyes almost closed, following the scent trails. Done at various times of day and night, our noses will lead us to some surprising sources of delicate or potent perfumes. On an early summer morning, we may be greeted by the intensely green smell of dew-spangled lawn, the mild fragrance of opening daylilies, the mellow scent of spearmint touched by trailing fingers. Midday brings out the powerful perfumes of roses and mignonette as well as the sharper odors of pungent santolina or aromatic lavender. Evening-scented stocks and tobaccos arrive with twilight and linger long into the night.

Living Into The Mystery

It shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that humans experience
smells in vastly different ways. Some people love the musty sweetness of privet, while for others it is an annoying allergen. The bitter, biting aroma of chrysanthemums or nasturtiums may be attractive to me, yet repellent to you. The smell of sweet violets might seem swooningly romantic or remind us of cheap perfume. Before making a fragrance garden, it’s vital to explore and chart your personal palette of pleasing smells. Clearly, the best way to go about this is to grow as many plants that are notably fragrant as possible, cherishing our favorites and eliminating those we find distasteful.

Unfortunately, merely cramming in a profusion of aromatic plants can create an overwhelming barrage of smells that can clash or cancel each other out. (Ask me how I know….) To find a fragrant mixture that makes us happy, we have to play around a little. One way to do this is to make small bouquets or tussie-mussies, layering the herbal with the floral, mixing and matching until you develop a clear sense of what floats your boat. Notice how various scents make you feel or what they spark in your memories: Generally speaking, gentle herbal scents encourage stressed bodies to relax. Bracingly aromatic odors invigorate dull moods. Certain perfumes unfailingly entice us to abandon ourselves to enjoyment, while others seem exhilarating or fascinatingly mysterious. Fragrance gardening is per force a deeply personal enterprise because you and your nose are unique.

Winter Wondering

Winter is a great time to get started with the exploration into fragrance mixing, since there is less competition from lush summer bloomers. Next time you’re at a garden center, take an extra moment to smell every plant that catches your attention. Bring home everything you enjoy (always a good idea) and play around with placement. Start partnering in twos and threes, noticing how a sweet scent is emphasized by a richer, or sharper, or more pungent one. This works indoors too, as anyone who gets fascinated by scented geraniums can attest. Just thinking about the many, many delightful plants that are waiting to meet and mingle makes me smile. Bees and other pollinators will also be overjoyed to share your pleasure in perfumed plants. Onward, right?


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2 Responses to Living Perfumes

  1. Diane Hooper says:

    Great article Ann,
    Sometimes we just need to be reminded to enjoy our surroundings. Taking time to smell the plants in a nursery is a great way and suggestion.
    Thank you,

  2. Karla J Zimmerman says:

    Yes. A lovely way to go through life. Made my husband stick his head into a shrub last night…….

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