Fragrance in the Garden

Ken Muellers is a NYSLNA Lifetime Certified Nursery/ Landscape Professional and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is a NYSLNA Lifetime Certified Nursery/ Landscape Professional and can be contacted at

 by Ken Muellers

They say that of all the senses, smell is the one most closely linked to memory. From my experiences, I would say that is true. Whether it is the musty old smell of your grandmother’s basement or the aroma from the rose arbor in her garden, those scents bring memories flooding back, for better or for worse. So if you want to create a memorable garden, considering fragrance should be on the top of the list of attributes.

When we think of fragrant plants, we usually think of flowers. Roses, of course, are ones we are encouraged to stop and smell (which I do at every opportunity). But not all roses are created equal in the olfactory department. In fact, the very popular knockout roses have little to no scent at all. Some of the classic old fashioned rose varieties such as Mr. Lincoln, Pink Peace or Iceberg will give you great fragrance. If fragrance is your goal, you may want to sniff before you buy when it comes to roses.


Besides classic roses, some other excellent shrubs for aroma are lilacs (Syringa), Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), and daphne carol mackie which all bloom in the spring. For summer fragrance, besides the previously mentioned roses, summersweet (Clethra Alnifolia) and sweetspire (Itea Virginica) both provide sweet scents as advertised. A couple off-season fragrant plants are false holly (Osmanthus) which flowers in the fall and witchhazels (Hamamelis) that blooms in late winter. I recommend planting one of these scented shrubs near a frequently used door or window so you can enjoy the aroma.

In addition to fragrant shrubs, trees such as magnolia and vines like honeysuckle (Lonicera) offer strong bouquets that can permeate the whole garden. Some spring flowering bulbs like hyacinth and many types of daffodils (Narcissus) have scents that can be almost overpowering if brought indoors.

Many perennial flowers are listed as fragrant, although you have to stick your nose halfway in the flower to smell some of them. Some of the more aromatic ones are hosta plantaginea, asiatic lilies (Lilium), and lily of the valley (Convallaria). Of course, many of the herbs in the garden such as lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme are very fragrant when disturbed. My favorite annual for fragrance is Lantana with its candy like scent.

Although flowers are usually the main attraction in the fragrance department, some plants have scents from other parts of the plant. For me, no hike in the woods is complete without sniffing a crushed leaf of wintergreen (Galtheria) or bayberry (Myrica). Scraping a black birch (Betula lenta) or spicebush (Lindera benzoin) twig with a fingernail and taking a whiff is another must on a hike. Some plants in the woods offer some-not-so-great smells such as the aptly named skunk cabbage. In the garden, boxwoods (Buxus) have an aroma that many despise. Although for some it conjures up enough fond memories and visions of formal gardens from days past that the odor is overridden. Either way, it’s not something you easily forget.