Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
June, 2011
Regional Report

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Lilacs perfume the air with their incomparable fragrance each spring.

How Sweet It Is -- Or Isn't!

Lilac flowering is just finishing up in Vermont, and once again I have spent this all too brief season of bloom inhaling the delightful scent of the blossoms as often as possible. I cut bouquets for every room in the house; when out walking my dog, I stopped to bury my nose in a neighbor's bush; I strolled through the local Shelburne Museum grounds the day of their annual Lilac Sunday, admiring -- and sniffing -- the more than 400 lilacs in 90 varieties growing there.

Common lilacs, also known as French hybrids, certainly have one of the most pleasing perfumes in the plant world, but they are by no means the only plants with an enticing fragrance. Whether you're planting trees, shrubs, or annual or perennial flowers, there are many choices that can provide a distinctive olfactory experience.

Incorporating scented plants into the landscape brings a new dimension to the enjoyment of of our gardens. Odors can evoke some of our deepest-seated emotional responses, in part because our sensation of smell is connected directly to the limbic system, the most primitive part of our brain, which responds even before our cortex or cognitive center consciously identifies what the scent is.

Of course, the plants didn't evolve their various scents to tickle our olfactory nerves. The odors of the flowers are there to lure in the pollinating insects necessary for the sexual reproduction of the plant. Fortunately for us, most of the odors attractive to pollinators are also ones that we humans find attractive. It turns out that the olfactory acuity and preferences of bees are very similar to our own. However, the flowers of some plants that are pollinated by flies -- skunk cabbage is one example -- emit what to us is a pretty vile fragrance, but the flies find it enticing!

One plant to watch out for in the "bad-smelling" department is the ornamental pear Pyrus calleryana; 'Chanticleer' is a commonly-offered cultivar. While its narrow upright growth habit and showy white spring flowers make it a popular choice for planting near houses, walkways, and patios, beware! Its blossoms smell like dirty, wet gym socks left to molder in a heap -- it's best enjoyed from a distance!

Some of my favorite fragrant plants are spring-blooming trees and shrubs. In addition to common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), I grow the dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri 'Paliban'). Unlike the big flower heads of the common lilac, dwarf Korean is literally covered with small, dense clusters of pinkish-purple flowers in late spring that fill the air with a wonderful, spicy scent. Growing about 4-6 feet tall and twice as wide, this lovely lilac fits more easily into many landscape settings than the big hybrids and often reblooms (though less profusely) in the fall.

Two other shrubs whose fragrant spring blooms I couldn't do without are Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) and variegated Burkwood daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie'). Both these wonderfully scented bloomers should be planted near a walkway where you can enjoy their perfume up close.

The perception of fragrance can be a funny thing. The next on my list of delightfully odorous plants is fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). When its narrow, fluttery, white petals emerge in late spring, the air is filled with an elusive, lovely scent that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. My tree is in my front yard near the sidewalk and passersby frequently stop to inquire where the wonderful smell is coming from. Yet look in just about any horticultural reference and you'll find that fringe tree flowers are invariably described as having only a mild fragrance. Meanwhile my nose gets no response when I sniff the flowers of my fothergilla (Fothergilla major 'Mt. Airy') or mockorange (Philadelphus 'Buckley's Quill'), although both are always touted for their fragrance -- go figure!

When spring settles into summer, I rely more on the flowers of annuals and perennials to scent the garden. Dianthus, lilies, and garden phlox all add their perfume to the perennial garden. But for delicious evening scent I plant the annual flowering tobacco (Nicotiana). Plants that emit their fragrance as the sun goes down are doing so to attract the moths and other night-flying creatures that pollinate their blossoms. I plant nicotiana close to the windows of my house. Then, on warm nights with all the windows open, their marvelous scent wafts through the entire house, filling it with the evocative odor my limbic system immediately recognizes as "summer."

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