When it comes to floral fragrances, I am a junkie for daphnes: I will contort myself in any way necessary to get my nose next to one. Think of the game Twister and you can get an idea. The Missouri Botanical Garden makes it much more civilized, growing them under glass in the Shoenberg Temperate House and placing them higher on rock walls for ease of sniffing.
My mother’s favorite fragrance is that of the lilac, the state flower of New Hampshire. Lilacs are difficult to grow here, suffering from stem borers that work their dirty little deeds hidden under the bark, and so, like daphnes, which are too tender for our icy winters, we enjoy them elsewhere. Our Missouri gardens can be filled with scents sweet and spicy, however, simply by choosing plants that will perform well in our conditions.
Low Border Plants
Among my tiny favorites are native violets, slow spreading lilies-of-the-valley and the grape hyacinth, Muscari macrocarpum ‘Golden Fragrance.’ True hyacinths, especially ‘Sung,’ provide my favorite floral perfume and have proven to be sturdy perennial bulbs.
For mid-season, Garden bulbmeister Jason Delany recommends Hemerocallis ‘Cinderella’s Blush’ and H. ‘Imperial Lemon’ as his two favorite daylilies for fragrance. They would fit well in the middle perennial border along with the scented coneflower, Rudbeckia ‘Fragrant Angel.’ This white coneflower has good flower count, but is a bit floppy, so provide it with some guiding support.
For the back border, there are some wonderfully scented trumpet and oriental lilies. Most Oriental hybrid lilies are fragrant, and the modern cultivars have shorter, stronger stems. Try the older cultivars ‘Stargazer’ and ‘Casa Blanca’ or newer selections like ‘Hotline’ and ‘Brasilia.’ Don’t bother with the more compact Asiatic lilies: While they may behave better in the border, they have no fragrance at all.
No fragrant garden is complete without the lowly petunia. Slipped into a hanging basket or dripping over the edge of a retaining wall, a carpet of petunias provides a sturdy fragrance base note on which to build a more complex garden perfume. Just let your nose be your guide, since most petunias are sold in cell-packs already in flower.
Some people consider the native Virgin’s bower clematis (Clematis virginiana) to be a weed. Usually, it turns out to be the invasive Asian sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) misidentified. Both of them smell sweet and are blanketed with tiny white flowers. To tell them apart, look at the leaflets: The native, good one has toothed leaflets in threes, and the weedy alien one has five leaflets with no teeth on the edges. The fancy cultivated clematis varieties can be very showy, but lack the sweet scent of Virgin’s bower.
Wisterias also can be invasive, though we all love the bubblegum sweetness of the gracefully dripping panicles of white or lavender flowers. My mother’s garden has a wonderful white wisteria on a trellis, like an island in the middle of the yard, where it can be beaten back into submission and contained. The ‘Amethyst Falls’ cultivar of the native Wisteria frutescens is much more manageable, but many people do not like its fragrance, as well as that of the Chinese and Japanese species.
A new treat for us in Missouri is a reliably hardy Carolina jessamine. This beautiful yellow-flowered climbing vine is the State Flower of South Carolina. Long one of my favorites for its very early spring bloom, it was not hardy here when I first moved to St. Louis 10 years ago. Since then, a new selection, Gelsemium sempervirens ‘Margarite,’ has changed the rules, especially in our progressively warmer climates.
Sweet pea ‘Melody’ mix is an annual that can be grown from seed. It will fill up an empty chain link fence quickly and turn a utility space into a lovely vertical cutting garden. It is one of the best cut flowers for fragrance and makes a perfect nosegay.
The spring bloom of the deciduous magnolias this year was awe-inspiring. They opened early with the March warm spell and hung around longer when the temperature dropped. We all know about the years when the frost gets them, but a season like this one makes those occasional losses tolerable.
Blooming at about the same time as the earliest magnolias are the Cornelian cherry (actually a dogwood sister named Cornus mas), with clusters of tiny yellow flowers, and Lonicera fragrantissima, the elegantly fragrant winter honeysuckle. The individual flowers from each of these are no show-stoppers, but on a sunny winter day, they will perfume the air with sweet, honey and lemon fragrance.
When Julie and I compared notes for this column, we both had listed the three ‘C’s: Chionanthus, Calycanthus and Clethra. The native Chionanthus virginicus (American fringe tree) or
C. retusus (Chinese fringe tree) are both covered with frothy white flowers whose fragrance is second to none. Calycanthus is called ‘sweet bubby’ in the South. A small, maroon flower, its fragrance grows with temperature. Women used to pick a few and place them in their cleavage, giving rise to the common name.
The viburnums for our area that have the best fragrance are mainly varieties of either V. X burkwoodii, V. carlesii, and V. X juddii. When shopping for viburnums, be sure you choose one that is known for its fragrance, or you might be sorely disappointed by a plant that not only doesn’t smell good, but is ugly and should be relegated only to the back forty as screening material.
The genus Prunus (cherries, apricots and plums) has numerous fragrant offerings. First to bloom is P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke,’ a Japanese apricot that performs very well at the Garden. The weeping Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella var. pendula) and Yoshino cherry (P. yedoensis) bloom from late March into April, with a very delicate fragrance.
When the lindens bloom in early June to mid-July, you will have to look closely to find the flowers. Since many of the trees are tall and the small flowers are an inconspicuous yellowish white, you will find them with your nose. Lindens have one of the richest perfumes of any tree but are seldom appreciated: The flowers come and go without much visual fanfare.
Osmanthus, fragrant olive, is another of my personal favorites; more than a hundred cultivars are grown in China. Some of the cultivars bloom in the spring, others in the fall. To enjoy this flowering shrub in St. Louis, visit the Linnean House at the Garden. The restoration of this historic (1882) glass house is nearly complete, and it will re-open this month.
No discussion of fragrance would be complete without mentioning the queen of off-peak blooming: the witch hazel. Some varieties bloom in late fall and fill the winter landscape with both color and wonderful spicy fragrances that hang on until the true spring bloomers can take over. All witch hazels are very slow growers, so buy the largest ones you can afford. Witch hazel makes a wonderful understory plant in open woods and would be a good choice for filling in open spaces left from bush honeysuckle removal that you are going outside now to get started on! LN
Dr. Patricia Raven has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist and manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden.