The Lure of Fragrance in the Garden

Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas AgriLife Extension Service
old narcissus 'Golden Dawn'
Old narcissus 'Golden Dawn'

Did you ever enter a garden and notice a wonderful fragrance and try to track down the source? Many flowers have fragrance when sniffed up close but some are so aromatic that they can permeate the entire garden. Fragrance has been an important part of gardens forever but modern breeding has favored flower size and colors while too often overlooking scent. Roses are a good example. The spicy richness of "Maggie", 'Belinda's Dream' and 'Duchesse de Brabant' leave an impression not easily forgotten.

Sweet Olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is a small tree or large evergreen shrub that flourishes over much of the South. Its small, creamy white blossoms occur during warm spells all fall, winter and spring and on a still day can be experienced 20 or 30 feet from the source. The same is true of winter honeysuckle, (Lonicera fragrantissima). My grandmother had one planted at the back gate and it bloomed every year in January and February with lemony scented yellowish blossoms. It is one of the few shrubs that thrives equally well in all areas of our state.

Gardenias are another heirloom favorite. Although they prefer acid soils, gardenias were so highly prized by our ancestors that even in the hot, dry areas of our state they could prosper when the soil was amended with leaf mold, peat moss or other similar soil amendments. My parents had a large specimen planted outside their bedroom window in Houston and it could scent the entire garden and house when at its peak in late spring, early summer.

In South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley citrus is an option. Other areas can grow citrus in containers and provide protection during freezing temperatures. Satsumas, kumquats, tangerines and grapefruit are all possibilities and they all have wonderfully fragrant flowers. If you have ever been in a citrus grove at bloom time you know that it is a special experience.

Old-Fashioned Sweet Pea
Old-Fashioned Sweet Pea

Now is a good time to plant narcissus and they, too, are among the most fragrant garden plants. Narcissus 'Grand Primo' has been around for hundreds of years and is probably our most reliable spring flowering bulb. N. 'Golden Dawn' is another widely adapted choice and blooms a little later in spring. Order or purchase bulbs now and plant as soon as they arrive. They are best when planted in groups or "drifts" of a dozen or more.

Now is also a good time to plant seeds of sweet peas. As their name implies, sweet peas have a wonderful fragrance and are an all time favorite. In North Texas wait till late winter to plant them but for the rest of us select a place that has a little protection from the North and prepare the soil by adding compost or composted pine bark along with some cotton seed meal or slow release garden fertilizer. Plant next to a fence or trellis so that the vines will have support. Two favorites that are very old and reliable are 'Painted Lady' (pink) and 'Cupani'(purple & rose). Both are usually available from seed sources. You should have lots of fragrant bouquets by late March and April.

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