BURYING your nose in a bunch of lavender or running your hands along a hedge in full flower is one of life’s pleasures. Whether it’s an old-fashioned rose, a small bunch of freshly picked violets or a pungent herb, the heady smell is a reminder of the joy that nature – and gardening – bring to our lives.
Lilac trees hold a special place in my heart. My mother grew them in Nottingham and she picked the flowers in spring to bring inside so we could enjoy the delicate blooms and revel in their beautiful perfume. Likewise with sweet peas, which she grew in abundance every year.
An Australian friend got quite teary in the 1960s when he came across some gum trees while in the Canary Islands, which shows how evocative a fragrance can be.
No garden is complete without something exuding an aroma, be it a tree, vine, shrub, ground cover or herb – unless, of course, you’re highly allergic. So let’s start from the ground up.
Obvious flowers that have a delicate smell are violets, but they can be a curse when they multiply, unless you go for native violets (Viola hederacea), which aren’t quite so prolific. Dianthus or pinks (smaller relatives of carnations) have a very sweet smell. Lily of the valley has a lovely perfume and flowers on Caulfield Cup Day, but I find them tricky to grow. Then there are the many heavily scented spring-flowering bulbs such as freesias and jonquils.
Herbs make excellent aromatic ground covers; pennyroyal, when crushed, emits a strong fragrance similar to spearmint.
Like pennyroyal, chamomile is a highly scented ground cover that can be a good substitute for lawn. Prostrate thyme and prostrate rosemary are also superb aromatic ground covers, as is oregano in the right conditions.
Imagine walking over some of these plants or rolling around in them. Heavenly.
Culinary herbs for a scented garden include mint, rosemary, sage, catmint, basil, French tarragon, thyme and bay (Laurus nobilis). Don’t forget Vietnamese mint in your herb garden, which as well as adding punch to Asian dishes also has a pungent smell that is not unpleasant. Coriander is the same but it’s hopeless in summer as it bolts to seed in warm weather. Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are pleasing in the garden but it’s the fragrant fruit that is so delectable. Grow them as a border and you’ll be rewarded twofold.
Many geraniums and pelargoniums are scented – from mint to lemon and rose. Salvias, too, have a distinct aroma, some of them a bit strange, I must admit. And don’t forget citrus for perfumed blooms and aromatic leaves, such as from the kaffir lime.
When it comes to climbers, you can’t go past Chinese star jasmine for heavenly fragrance. Once Trachelspermum jasminoides takes off there’s no stopping it, and when the vanilla-scented, star-shaped flowers have finished, you’ll be rewarded with glossy green leaves, some of which turn red in summer.
For perfume on hot summer nights, plant a Chilean jasmine (Mandevilla laxa). The white variety is popular but you can now buy pink, yellow and red, all of which exude the same lovely fragrance. Stephanotis or Madagascan jasmine has starry white blooms and is another fragrant climber but it can sometimes turn up its toes. Winter and summer jasmines also provide perfume for weeks.
Pandorea jasminoides (bower vine) and P. pandorana (wonga vine) are native to Australia and lovely climbers but not as fragrant as mandevilla or stephanotis.
In spring, wisteria shakes us out of our winter torpor with masses of perfumed racemes. Many shrubs have perfumed blooms – murraya, gardenias, mock orange, osmanthus and daphne. Some camellias have perfumed flowers, including ‘Cinammon Cindy’, which is redolent of apple blossom.
A variety of native shrubs display perfumed foliage, including Prostanthera cuneata (alpine mint bush), Eriostemon myoporoides and, of course, not forgetting the most perfumed of them all, Boronia megastigma, from which the suburb of Boronia got its name.
Many plants can lay claim to being iconic for their fragrances, including wallflowers (Erysimum), but the rose surpasses them all. The first instinct with a rose is to smell it, but some modern varieties don’t quite cut it – unlike the old-fashioned varieties and cultivars bred by English rose grower David Austin, which exude the true rich fragrance that has inspired lovers, writers and poets for centuries. Names such as ‘Constance Spry’, ‘Papa Meilland’, ‘Pierre de Ronsard’, ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’, ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’ and ‘Abraham Darby’ – and that is just the tip of the rose-fragrance iceberg.
The heady smell of blossoms pervade the air in spring from fruit trees to ornamentals.
Later in the season the ‘Little Gem’ magnolias display their large creamy white flowers with their exotic tropical smell.
The native frangipani also produces tropical-smelling blooms and is an all-time favourite; likewise, the jacaranda with its gently scented racemes of purple-blue flowers. The black wattle (Acacia mearnsli) has strongly scented flowers in late spring-early summer but one of the best-smelling native trees is the lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora).
I’ve only touched the surface but it gives you an idea of what’s available. So get those olfactory juices flowing!