Star Gardener: Fragrance in the Garden

Strongly fragrant plants can prod us into engagement with the present
Left, the spicy scent of rhododendron Dexter’s Peppermint carries from one side of the garden to another. Right, Lily of the Valley’s intoxicating smell should not be overlooked. Abby Jane Brody Photos

There is nothing like being enveloped in a cloud of intense fragrance to jolt you into the here and now. Most of us are not disciplined enough to focus on the moment, but whether in a natural landscape or garden, that is where we ought to be to savor its beauty. Strongly fragrant plants can prod us into engagement with the present.

Even though I have planted my own garden with fragrance in mind and have attempted to have it in succession throughout the year, invariably the perfume floating by on a breeze catches me unawares. I forget whatever chore was absorbing me to breathe deep. I look around for the source and enjoy the garden.

Over the last two weeks the spicy scent of rhododendron Dexter’s Peppermint has been dominant. Recently moved to the center of my garden, its perfume carries from one side to the other. The soft satin pink of the petals on its large trusses rewards a visit to the source.

Perhaps you have to experience fragrant rhododendrons before being motivated to seek them out. In our area the best place to find them is Rare Find Nursery in southern New Jersey. Rare Find does mail order, but it is worth a visit.

Many but not all of the Dexter hybrids are highly fragrant. Some years back, the founder of Rare Find donated R. Helen Everitt, with pure white flowers, to the Garden Club of East Hampton’s silent auction, where the bidding was enthusiastic.

To extend the fragrance of rhododendrons from late May into June and July, look to deciduous native azaleas and their hybrids, many of which are also highly scented. Rhododendron viscosum, the swamp azalea, is native to the East End and flowers along our shady, damp roadsides, particularly in Springs. Most have white flowers, but are also available in pink shades.

An excellent July-blooming native azalea is R. Weston’s Millenium, thought to be one of the best of the fragrant Weston azaleas. We planted some in the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden for midsummer color in the shady side of the garden. For earlier fragrance and bloom to speed us along in our April spring cleanup is a grouping of R. atlanticum that have soft pink flowers and soft bluish foliage; because of the difficult winter they were in flower last week.  
Daphnes, whose perfume can drive you into a frenzy, are the traditional source of fragrant garden shrubs. While they are said to be difficult — and during last winter many of us lost quite a few of our older plants — no garden should be without them. There are daphnes in flower in my garden all year, except during the depths of winter. 

Depending on the weather, Daphne odora Aureo-Marginata, among the most fragrant, can flower from January into April. When I began gardening, this daphne was thought not to be reliably hardy, but that has changed in the intervening years and my established plant weathered the extended periods of 15-degree days and nights with no problem. The buds were ready in January, but because of the cold they didn’t open until March. It forms a three-foot mound with evergreen yellow-margined leaves that is handsome even when not flowering.

Daphne odora is a treasure that should be near every passionate gardener’s doorway to banish winter as you are coming and going. County Line Nursery in Georgia, a wholesale grower, offers collectors via mail order both the pink and white flowered forms of D. odora Aureo-Marginata. The owner told us the white form is even hardier than the pink; the plants he sent were of good size and are settling in nicely.

For essentially year-round non-stop flowering, look to the Daphne x transatlantica hybrids. With the closing of Environmentals Nursery, the all-green Jim’s Pride and variegated Beulah Cross have become difficult to locate. Easier to find are Eternal Fragrance, an all-green plant with glossy leaves, and the variegated Summer Ice.

Daphne Carol Mackie with variegated foliage and pink flowers remains a classic. It flowers only briefly, although profusely, during the first two weeks of May. As it ages, its branches have a tendency to split under heavy snow. Devoted though I am to Carol Mackie, which was introduced by the former Watnong Nursery in New Jersey, where I lived for 10 years, if space is a consideration grow Summer Ice instead. 

From late July into August the scent of native clethra, which also grows along our roadsides, cuts through the heat and humidity and is as refreshing as a glass of cold lemonade, or nearly so. There are a good number of variants, from dwarf to tall, white to pink. You can hardly go wrong with any of them, although be aware that clethra suckers and forms clumps.

Rounding out the year, the false holly, Osmanthus heterophyllus, has an intense fragrance when it flowers, in October into November. They make excellent hedges and are not among the most favorite meals of deer.

Witchhazels and shrub honeysuckles ring in the first three months of the year. Carefully selected witchhazels can have showy flowers and perfume that spreads over a wide area. Three favorites are the vase-shaped Arnold Promise, the broader Chinese witchhazel Hamamelis mollis, and the hybrid Barmstedt Gold.  Perhaps the best of the honeysuckles is Lonicera x purpusii Winter Beauty.  Unlike the other honeysuckles, deer seem to only graze Winter Beauty. 

In late April-early May, viburnums round out the season with spicy scent.  V. carlesii, juddi, and carlcephalum are the ones to look for.

These selections have been for me the workhorses for consistent fragrance in my garden. 

Lily of the valley should not be overlooked. A form with bright yellow striped leaves is often found at plant sales, donated from local gardens.

Irises are just opening and will be followed by roses and lilies. We have a bounty from which to choose.