My favourite smell, bar none, is that of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Add to that a hint of bacon (which I do not eat very often) and you have my version of nose nirvana. Fragrance often triggers memory, and by way of example, every time I bruise the leaves of Geranium ‘Biokovo’ I am brought into the presence of my somewhat stern but still lovable Austrian grandfather who always seemed to have an endless supply of Old Spice men’s cologne at hand. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us that the same chemical composition found in plants (E.G. lemons), would be shared elsewhere in the botanical kingdom. And just to pique your interest, here is a list of scents, including everything from "bubblegum" to "outhouse" that can be found in gardens just like yours.
According to my mother, this was the one thing I was allergic to as an infant, so it is a fragrance that I associate more with billiards and keeping my pool cue action smooth. That said, one sniff of the pale lavender to deep purple blossoms of Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) is enough to bring most people back to their child-rearing days.
I am talking about the vintage bubblegum scent here, like the Dubble Bubble or Hubba Bubba gum of days gone by, and it comes from a most unlikely source: Wintergreen. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a low-growing evergreen subshrub native to eastern Canada with attractive white heather bells, bronzed winter foliage, and bright red berries. It is used to flavour everything from chewing gum, root beer, and tea, and is one of the ingredients of mouthwash as it has antibacterial qualities as well.
I look forward to the early days of autumn, particularly when I travel past a cluster of Katsura trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) on my morning cycle. Just as the leaves shift into their spectacular fall tones they emit the mouth-watering scent of caramel, although some might describe it as burnt sugar or cotton candy.
While the chocolate we all know and love is derived from the roasted beans of the tropical cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao), you can enjoy that same fragrance by simply planting a few summer flowers. Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) bears dark burgundy-red flowers on tall stems that emit a cocoa scent on warm days, so if you are looking to lose a few pounds, just breathe in their chocolate goodness instead of eating that Snickers bar.
Rhododendron "PJM Elite'
There is a reason that Mockorange (Philadelphus) has its common name, as the abundant pure white flowers have a strong sweet citrus fragrance. Its zone 4 hardiness and numerous compact cultivars, such as ‘Snowbelle’, mean that it can find a place in almost any garden.
Being one of the spices that make a perfect apple pie, cloves are the dried flowers of a tropical tree (Syzygium aromaticum) that is a member of the myrtle family and also an instantly recognisable fragrance. Many members of the Pink family share this scent, in particular Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), a short-lived biennial or perennial with single or double white, pink, and burgundy-red blossoms that are an essential part of the English cottage garden.
Earl Grey Tea
Although the prime flavouring of this traditional tea is derived from the rinds of the Bergamot orange, you can enjoy that same fragrance in your own garden. Beebalm (Monarda didyma) comes in a multitude of colours, but it is the reds like ‘Jacob Cline’ that really draw the hummingbirds in. Simply bruise the leaves to enjoy that distinct bergamot scent and both the flowers and leaves can be brewed to make a refreshing herbal tea.
Freshly Mown Hay
If you love the smell of a barn recently stocked with newly baled hay then Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is the groundcover for you. This white-flowered shade-lover emits this scent when the leaves are bruised and it is also a key ingredient (along with wild strawberries) in making the very herbal ‘May Wine’.
Gardenia ‘Kleim’s Hardy’
This is a fragrance that this plant family guards very carefully, and while many of us are familiar with the glossy-leaved houseplant with highly scented ivory flowers, did you know that there are quite a number of hardy varieties? I find the single-flowered ‘Kleim’s Hardy’ the most reliable, while double forms such as Gardenia jasminoides ‘Frost Proof’ and ‘Summer Snow’ are also available.
Sweet Autumn Clematis
When one mentions fragrant clematis the first ones that usually come to mind are the spring-blooming Clematis armandii and C. montana. But there is another species that flowers from late summer into fall, often bearing hundreds to thousands of tiny white 1” blooms that emanate a heady hawthorn fragrance. Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis paniculata) is also known as C. ternifolia and grows upwards of 20-30’ at maturity.
Witch Alder (Fothergilla major) is a much-underutilized shrub with white bottlebrush flowers that emerge from April to May with a delightful honey scent. This member of the Witch Hazel family also bears brilliant autumn tones of vibrant yellows, oranges, and reddish-burgundy.
Of course, nothing smells more like honeysuckle than an actual honeysuckle vine, but with so many to choose from, how do you know which ones are the most fragrant? I have three suggestions for you, starting with both early and late Dutch (Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica’ and ‘Serotina’ respectively) with their lovely creamy-yellow and raspberry-red bicolor blooms. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), in particular ‘Halliana’, is another more vigorous (15-30’ tall) choice with heady white and yellow blossoms.
Dwarf Sweet Box
Those of you disappointed by the demise of your Jasmine vines this past winter might want to consider a change to Dwarf Sweet Box (Sarcococca humilis). Not only does this evergreen shade shrub smell like Jasmine, but it does so in the middle of winter when we need it most.
Those of a certain age will understand when I tell them that "lemon pledge" is a legitimate fragrance, as it was the standard wood polish of our mothers during the 1960s and 70s. To find that exact same smell in a plant might seem all but impossible, but Lemon Cypress (Chamaecyparis macrocarpa ‘Wilma’) does just that every time you roll a sprig between your fingers.
I have looked for this fragrance in the rhizomes of our native Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) only to be disappointed, but I only have to lightly brush Agastache or Hyssop to get my fill. Add to that the fact that this herbaceous perennial comes in any number of flower colours (blue, purple, peach, rose) and is a favourite forage of hummingbirds, and you have everything you could want in a flower.
Dead Man’s Fingers
Nothing really tastes as unique as Lychee fruit except perhaps for the bright blue, sausage-like pods of Dead Man’s Fingers (Decaisnea fargesii). Just harvest the fruits of this hardy shrub once they have turned blue and feel slightly soft to the touch. Then split them open with your hands and enjoy the taste and smell of the snot-like jelly that surrounds the black seeds…if you dare! 😨
Warm spiced wine is an acquired taste and while I don’t mind having it occasionally around Christmas, it is not a common scent. The exception here is the deep burgundy-brown flowers of Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) as well as the bruised foliage. This tall (6-9’) deciduous shrub really should be found in more gardens.
Although not an uncommon fragrance, that onion scent is a little more unusual in the ornamental plant world. Enter Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), a zone 7 hardy South African native with grass-like leaves that smell of garlic when bruised, and edible flowers which have more of an onion flavour. We often carry the variegated form in our aquatic plant section as it tolerates moist soils.
This may sound like a weird fragrance but it is the only way I describe the scent of the perennial Fish Mint (Houttuynia cordata) which has edible foliage. I will warn you in advance that people either find it disgusting or intriguing, with no middle ground. The most common cultivar out there is the brightly variegated ‘Chameleon’.
Despite its exotic appearance, Voodoo or Dragon Lily (Dracunculus vulgaris) with its showy burgundy-black spathes is actually hardy to zone 5. The real surprise happens when one takes a deep whiff and finds themselves taking in the smell of a very ripe, unkept outhouse 🤮. The reason for this is that it needs to attract flies and other pollinators and this particular fragrance does it rather well.
The misnamed Honey Bush (Melianthus major) is a tropical shrub native to South Africa. It is occasionally grown as a tender container accent here in coastal BC with its dramatic deeply-incised blue foliage. The bonus here is that when you rub the leaf a little it emanates a peanut butter scent that is stronger than a freshly opened jar of Jif.
This fruit has a pretty unique smell and flavour but Mother Nature always seems to be more than able to mimic it elsewhere. Enter Pineapple Sage or Salvia elegans, a tender herb native to Mexico. Both the leaves and bright red flowers are edible and have a distinct pineapple scent. Hummingbirds are also known to fight over the blossoms.
Most of us are familiar with the herbal sage (Salvia officinalis) that flavours our turkey stuffing at Thanksgiving, but did you know that there are many sage-scented perennials to adorn your garden with? One of the best choices out there is the drought-tolerant Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) with its silvery foliage and edible bluish-purple flowers. The fresh blooms also make a great salad garnish.
While everyone’s sense of smell is a little different, it is no less surprising to pick a bouquet of humble Cowslip (Primula veris) flowers and encounter the musky smell of vanilla, which is why the blooms are also fermented to make a very tasty Cowslip wine.