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The Most Fragrant Flowers

The Smell of Gardening
By Paul James
When I’m out in the garden, there are certain smells that transport me back 60 years or more to my maternal grandparents’ farm in LA (as in Lower Arkansas, just a few dozen miles north of the other LA, as in Louisiana), be it just-turned compost or freshly dug potatoes or the curious mix of barn “fragrances.” Such is the power of smell. And it’s a powerful reason for growing all sorts of plants, from roses to rosemary.

But without a doubt, flowers take center stage when it comes to delighting our sense of smell in the garden, smells that range from sweet and spicy to floral and fruity, and pretty much everything in between.

But not all flowers smell good. Some, in fact, smell downright awful. The corpse flower has the stench of rotting flesh, which attracts carrion beetles and blowflies that serve as pollinators. (I can attest to its offensive odor.) Boxwoods (particularly English boxwoods) in flower have a scent that’s reminiscent of cat pee. Bradford pears smell like dead fish. And the beautiful, thistle-like flowers of sea holly, an otherwise attractive perennial, smell just like -- I kid you not -- dog poop.

Rather than focus on the stinky, however, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite, fragrant, flowering plants. It’s by no means complete, but for those of you looking to add fragrance to your garden, you can’t go wrong with any of these. All require a good six hours of sun a day, but are otherwise relatively easy to grow.
Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us. And the part of a dog's brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is about 40 times greater than ours.
A Party for the Senses
Bearded Iris
With a scent variously described as anise to floral to nutty to -- wait for it -- grape soda, bearded irises are as beautiful and carefree as plants get. There’s a batch of them growing near my house and I can smell them even with my car windows rolled up. I’ve yet to detect grape soda though.
Distinctly spicy and clove-like (with a hint of cinnamon) you’ll often smell this long-lived perennial before you even see it. And they often bloom -- in a variety of colors -- from May to the first frost. Great for borders or in containers.
One of the most fantastic fragrances of all, this evergreen shrub can be grown in the ground or in containers, which makes it ideal for flanking your home’s entrance. The scent is especially heady on warm, humid evenings, and is used in a number of perfumes made by Gucci and Tom Ford, among others.
An herb garden favorite, this beauty produces loads of purplish flower clusters that emit a fragrance that fans liken to cherry pie. Or vanilla. Or grape jelly. Clearly, it depends on who you ask, but you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Talk about taking me back to my childhood! My parents had honeysuckle vines growing on a chain link fence when I was young, and to this day I’m reminded of its honey-sweet scent, especially just an hour or so before dusk. And I enjoyed sucking the nectar out of them as much as the hummingbirds.
Bulbs go in the ground in fall, and by the following spring the plants bloom and release an intoxicating fragrance. No wonder the chemicals responsible for their smell have been used by perfumers for centuries. Definitely the most fragrant of all the spring-flowering bulbs.
Sorry, not all lavenders are fragrant, but those that are -- notably English varieties -- often have a light and fresh floral scent with a touch of sweetness as well as herbal, even balsamic notes, without being overwhelming. Plants require excellent drainage, which is why they’re often grown in pots.
The sweet, heady scent of lilacs also reminds me of my grandmother, who grew them near the front porch of the farm house, where she taught me how to churn butter and shell purple-hull peas. The medium to dark purple varieties tend to be most fragrant; white varieties often have zero scent.
This sweetly scented relative of tobacco is especially fragrant at night, so consider planting it under windows you can leave open overnight. Grows great from seed, which can be planted now. Plants can grow up to five-feet tall, so consider them as a back-of-the-border annual, as they aren’t hardy.
Oriental Lilies
These super hardy lilies are powerfully fragrant, with an exotic scent that can easily perfume an entire garden. Plants need rich, well-draining soil and regular watering. They may also require staking. Cut flowers can last up to two weeks indoors.
Unfortunately, not all peonies are fragrant either, but those with white and pink flowers almost always are, as are most double-flowered varieties. Scents range from floral to citrusy, not unlike many roses. The flowers aren’t particularly long lasting, but the memory of their fragrance certainly is.
On warm, sunny days, the smell of both upright and creeping varieties of Phlox is sensational. (Sure, I could have written that as scentsational, but how corny do you think I am? Don’t answer that!) Anyway, Phlox is easy to grow, comes back year after year, and attracts loads of butterflies.
Although some modern roses may have very little if any fragrance, there are still plenty of types and varieties available that smell fabulous, including hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, climbers and drifts. And don’t forget the David Austin roses, many of which have that classic, old world rose scent.
Southern Magnolia
To my nose, this is perhaps the most richly perfumed flower of all. Put cut flowers in a bowl of water and in no time your home will be filled with its fabulous fragrance that’s both sweet and fruity. It actually reminds me of champagne, a scent I also find irresistible.
Sweet Peas
My grandmother always planted sweet peas along a fenceline, and when I get a whiff of their powerfully scented flowers, I think of her. Of course, the same thing happens when I smell fried chicken. And peach cobbler. Plant from seed, and provide support for the vines.
Viburnum Korean Spice
Aptly named, this awesome shrub blooms in spring, and the scent of its flowers is intoxicatingly spicey. Plant one or more near your patio and you won’t be disappointed. Neither will any of your guests. Promise.
Durian is a popular fruit native to Southeast Asia, with an odor that has been described as turpentine, rotten onions, and sewage. This fruit is so smelly that it has actually been banned on public transit in Singapore and Thailand.
The Smell of Soil
The word petrichor refers to the odor released into the air when rain falls on dry soil or rock. But the specific chemical responsible for the distinctive smell is known as geosmin, which humans can smell at concentrations as low as 100 parts per trillion, which is astonishing given our lack of olfactory virtuosity.
According to several scientific studies, the smell humans love the most is vanilla, followed by peaches.
Coming Next Week -- Living Fences
Creating privacy usually means building an expensive fence. But you can use plants to create a living fence for a lot less money. Paul presents his favorite plants for privacy next week, from trees to shrubs to vines.

Garden Tip of the Week

There are all kinds of tips for extending the life of cut flowers, but the best of the bunch is to simply change the water daily.

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