peony3Things have been rough at work lately.  Test scores have plummetted, students are troubled, many teachers are talking mutiny or early retirement.  Morale is generally in the toilet.

On the drive home from work, I find that stopping for a large chocolate chip cookie and a Frappuchino from Starbucks is often just the pick-me-up I need to transition from work to home, where I will be greeted by a gregarious old yellow lab and a still-very-wiggly seven-year-old boy, both of whom will be requesting play and attention.  (The martini, slippers, and newspaper are nowhere in sight!)

Anyway, lately I have been indulging in another covert little ritual before I enter the house, which helps my cares float away almost as well as a cookie or a martini.

Only this ritual isn’t fattening!

See what I do is, I pull into the driveway and get out of the car kind of quietly.  I don’t slam the car door too hard because if I announce my presence, dog and boy will likely come bounding out of the house to greet me, which is totally sweet and everything, but this particular little ritual requires solitude and quiet.  So here it is:

I grab my purse and keys, but instead of going in the house right away I tiptoe into the side yard where I have planted a little cloister of scented plants — peonies, roses, some scented geraniums.  Bordered on one side by a tall hedge of evergreens and on the other by our house, this little area is completely private — no neighbors or pedestrians can peer in.  And in the afternoon it is drenched in golden sunshine, so fragrances are at their peak.

All it takes is a minute or two meandering down the walkway, bending down to smell the ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies, drinking in the warm perfumy smell, to begin loosening that hard little knot of stress that I often bring home with me. I move on to the ‘Therese Bugnet’ rose, lighter, sweeter, and fruitier than the peony.  This particular specimen is kind of gangly, and the blooms themselves are nothing to write home about aesthetically, but the aroma has earned this rose a place in my garden.

If I’ve had a really bad day I will also crouch down and breathe in the amazing spicy fragrance of Geranium ‘Biokovo’.  If an especially strong hit is needed I brush the leaves with my hand a little.  From a distance this geranium appears to  just sit there at the base of some shrubs, minding its own business, but it offers an incredible treat for the nose if you bother move in a bit closer.

Yup, a few moments alone in the sunshine sniffing flowers and I’m ready to face whatever awaits me indoors: dirty dishes, cluttered tabletops, games of Candyland, bring it on!

The older I get, the more I appreciate how things smell.  I know that sounds a little weird, but it’s true.

My mother, age 78, no longer has a sense of smell.  Several years ago, she was out taking a walk and fell, hitting her head on the sidewalk.  The blow left her with a long scar over her eye and apparently scrambled some olfactory nerves.  She cannot smell the food she cooks for Sunday dinners, she cannot smell her favorite Bath and Bodyworks lotion, and she cannot smell flowers.  (On the positive side, she also cannot smell skunks, dog-doo, or burnt popcorn, so it’s not all bad.)

If you had to lose one of your senses, I suppose your sense of smell would be the least devastating, but still, it’s a loss.  And now that I have become a gardener, I think that missing out on fragrance would be a serious loss indeed.

This past weekend I visited a local farmers’ market with my husband and son.  The vendors set up their stalls in the large parking lot of a train station, so it’s not exactly the most bucolic setting.  But as we drove into the lot in my husband’s Mustang (top down) we were greeted by the most divine fragrance!  It just came pouring over us.  The source?  Mounds of honeysuckle at the edge of the woods that bordered the concrete lot.  The stuff was just smothering the poor trees, and I know it’s mega invasive, but Lord did it ever bring some joy to that sad old parking lot on a June morning.  Drinking it in, I remembered the vine that grew on our chain-link fence growing up.  I remember plucking the flowers, pulling the stamens out, sucking the nectar off the petals.  Is this a universal childhood memory?  Long live honeysuckle.

Another time that I was pleasantly assaulted by fragrance was on a long road trip to Canada a few years ago.  There were five of us crammed in the car for the eleven hour drive to Niagara Falls — including two teenagers and a cranky toddler.  The mood had been soured early by a speeding ticket I’d received on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (that whole highway is a trap!) and so tensions were high when we stopped somewhere in New York to switch drivers.  We’d pulled over onto a small gravel shoulder at an exit, and when I got out of the car I was bowled over by it.  Sweet heaven! Utter deliciousness in the air!  I looked up.  Towering over us was an expansive grove of black locust trees, the creamy blossoms exploding with scent.  What I remember thinking: I want to stay here.  I don’t want to get back in the car.

The longer I garden, the more I appreciate and plant for fragrance — even if, as with peonies and roses, it is short-lived.  Interesting smells –whether they are soothing, provocative, romantic, whatever — add that layer which elevates a garden from a mere place to an experience.

Planning a garden to please the nose is harder than planning a garden to please eye.  Year-round color? No problem!  Year round fragrance?  Much harder.  Right now I have a big gap between my Sarcococca and my Fothergilla, and November-January is basically a dead zone smell-wise.

Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, my smelly plant list includes: lavender, sweetbay magnolia, kolkwitzia, lindera (when you crush the leaves they smell like Pine Sol), Pink Dawn Viburnum, and various herbs and annuals in the summer.  I would love to hear any recommendations you all have for fragrant plants to assist me in the expansion of my aromatic paradise.

48 thoughts on “Aromatherapy

    • Oh yeah, I have some of that, too! I forgot. Mine doesn’t flower very much, though. 😦 I love it though because it grows in the roots of my silver maple.

  1. Ahh…the burnt sugar of Katsura in autumn…Chocolate cosmos…Corsican mint underfoot…the diesel fumes of the backhoe as it places the boulders where I want them, so I can stop schlepping giant rocks around. Also, having grown up around a series of construction sites as my Dad serially built homes, the smell of cigarette smoke and sawdust together instantly makes me eight years old again. Not that they smell good, precisely, it is just an incredibly powerful sense memory. And this morning: the scent of dew on freshly cleared dirt, waiting to be planted.

    • Ah yes, Calvin, the smell of just plain old dirt is often very fine indeed. Last week I mixed a ‘barrowful of homemade compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Ahhhhh, you could bottle it!

  2. I just planted several chocolate flowers, Berlandiera lyrata, next to my patio in NM. The flowers look like small black eyed Susans, and they really do smell delectably of chocolate! Maybe a close calorie-free substitute for that chocolate chip cookie. It’s a southwestern native, so I’m not sure how it would do in Maryland’s humid summers, but it does well in drought and poor soils. The seed heads are interesting too.

    • Excellent! I will have to research those. I once put down cocoa hull mulch, which smelled wonderful and looked great at first, but it quickly got moldy — nasty! — and it took forever to decompose. When did you move to New Mexico?

  3. You’re going to laugh, but my favorite is the classic moonflower (Ipomoea alba), if only for its delicate scent first thing in the evening. When my wife and I first got married, I planted this at the base of the staircase leading to our apartment. By mid-summer, we had people coming from all over the complex just to stop, smell, and leave with a bit more bounce in their steps.

    • I would never laugh at somebody’s personal plant choices! See, I have learned something, because I did not even know that moonflower had a fragrance. I think I see it growing at the woodland edge around here sometimes. I wonder if it is the same one?

  4. This morning I tipped over a bucket that had a transplant in it that had filled with rainwater that I didn’t realize had rotted. Ummmm, I would like to trade that smell for something nice! I only really know the Atlanta plants but we grow Daphne and Fragrant Tea Olive for winter fragrance. I don’t know the zones for those (we are 7). Anise leaves have amazing crushed fragrance and someone else commented about the Katsura when they senesce. I call that “cotton candy”. Winter Honeysuckle is a good one and Chimonanthus praecox (Wintersweet). Do any of these grow for you further north? My Gardenia are perfumining my whole front yard right now.

    • Yes, I think I can grow most of those. Good list! I really want to try out a Daphne odorata ‘Aureo-marginata’ I just need to find a place to squeeze it in! And I have heard so much about that cotton candy smell from the Katsura, but I have never actually smelled it. Clearly, I need to spend more time around Katsuras!

  5. Loved your latest piece, as always, but I keep thinking that you need to treat the root of the problem, not the symptoms. Sounds like your work situation is pretty bad, but you also need to be available for your kid(s). I faced a similar situation before starting a design/install business. After three years, I can say this is a great field for working parents; plus, you get to do what you love! If you don’t feel like starting your own firm, there are plenty of people who want to hire folks with training in horticulture and design. Yankee Clippers, for example, trains their employees and offers very flexible schedules. Give it some thought. And keep smelling the flowers.

    • Lynley, I would loooooove to work full time in design/horticulture but I need the full-time job with bennies. My husband has started homeschooling our son this year so I am the bacon bringer now. Still, I am always keeping my eye out! It’s encouraging to hear your business is going so well!

    • I don’t think I can grow that jasmine year round outside, but I have thought of growing it in a pot outside during the summer. I lust after it when I go to the tropicals area at the nursery.

      • It looks like your town (Burke?) is in 7a and North Atlanta is 7a as well. Star Jasmine grows well in Atlanta even though it says it needs 8-10. The old name is Confederate Jasmine which most people know it by but there is an effort to make the name more inclusive I guess.

        • I didn’t realize that Confederate jasmine was the same as Star. Funny how far they go with the political correctness.

      • I live in Leesburg, VA and have been growing star jasmine in a container with a teepee trellis for many years now….I leave it outside all winter and have never had a problem. It’s in bloom right now and it’s heavenly! 🙂

  6. Can’tNorthern bayberry has the most wonderful scented foliage. if youIs can find Lonicera x purpusii it flowered for me in december in chicago and smelled just like fruit loops. winter viburnum (I can’t remember the latin on this one) is another great one for really early fragrance.

  7. Such a lovely post; just reading it made me feel livelier! Three fragrances that I adore, that only reveal themselves in pruning or with a fingernail-scratch on thin bark: the scent of PJM azalea stems when cut (spicy, fresh), the scent of applewood when cut, and the wonderful clean fragrance of magnolia bark when you scratch or peel it from a cut twig. That fragrance is an identifying characteristic of magnolia, and one I’d love to figure out how to bottle it or make it into a soap.

    • Okay, I’m going out to my magnolia tree right now to give it a scratch. I had no idea the wood was fragrant, too, because I never prune it! Do all magnolias have that fragrance? Mine is a sweetbay.

      • I believe sweetbays do. You’ll know as soon as you scratch and sniff; it’s quite a distinctive fragrance. Since reading about it in Dirr many years ago I have found ways to finagle a small twig when I’m out on a site that has magnolias….

  8. How right you are! Ahh-smells are soothing! I planted some Asiac Lilies-Stargazer by my front porch and when they bloom, I can just sit on my porch swing, listen to the stream out front and smell that delicious fragrance. Ahh-now that is relaxing! Keep up your wonderful stories because you’ve been hooked! Thank you!

  9. Two smells for you – Spring flowering Cytisus praecox ‘Warminster’ (Warminster Broom) and scented foliage of Helichrysum stoechas (aka ‘Curry Plant’ – no, it isn’t edible!). Plant these in a dry, sunny spot and you’ll be transported to some mediterranean (or the US equivalent) hillside – really long lasting and strong scent. They are by my front door, and I never want to go back indoors when I’ve gone to answer the doorbell on a sunny day – just drink in those heady smells!

    • Excellent! I do have a dry sunny spot, though between my lavender and my gaura, it’s getting full already. I have always been interested in Broom — maybe because of my Scottish ancestry — but it seems like one of those underdog plants we should see more. I had never heard of this Warminster Broom but will definitely look it up.

  10. I totally agree on how plant scents can rejuvenate your mood! I know my neighbors think I’m crazy when I get on my tiptoes to smell a lilac bloom. I have a rosemary bush in my garden that I will brush on purpose just to get that fragrance alive. And no matter where I am, I can’t help myself when I see any herb. I have to pinch or rub the leaf between my fingers and sniff. I could go on – honeysuckle on my runs on the W and OD, tomato plants in the summer, the smell of freshly cut grass or the smell of decay in the woods. The latter two may not be inviting to many, but they transport me to a different place.

    • Lovely, Sophie! I have a very sad lilac bush that I probably need to get rid of. It gets only about 4 or 5 blooms and they are way up top where I can’t reach, so what’s the point? I love all the smells you mention, too. Do you think your trips to your family’s cabin when you were a kid instilled this love of plants and nature?

      • Absolutely those trips inspired love of nature! My mom, however, is an avid gardener, so I think seeing her constantly out in the garden rubbed off on me. Speaking of the cabin – they sold it back in he 80s and now live in Oakton, Va. Somewhere, I have a few pictures from your visit there many moons ago! 🙂

        • Yes, I have a picture of it, too. I remember it well because I have my hair in these corny pigtails. If I run across it I will scan it!

  11. The other weekend I was recovering from bronchitis/ashtma, and was lounging in the hammock in the backyard, outside for the first time in a week. The breeze brought a wall of scent to me, the honeysuckle that runs rampant next door, and i was 10 years old again. Between that and the smell of mowed lawns, and whatever else is blooming in the neighborhood, I was more relaxed than I’d been in a quite a while.

    I love to smell the flowers. Spring and summer, it’s not unusual to discover I’ve been walking around all day with pollen on my nose from sticking it into every bloom I encounter. (Why does nobody tell you this?)

    Other favorite scents: the smell of rain, a certain weed in the yard whose name I don’t know, geranium leaves, tomato plants, azaleas (it’s very very faint, but a lovely fresh scent from my childhood; I always bury my nose in my azaleas when they bloom), boxwood (summer and childhood), the smell of good soil (reminds me of my dad and his garden), the smell of wet rock and woods (childhood memories in WV).

    • Hey Potato! Great to hear from you. Funny about the honeysuckle, I go after it like a madwoman when it grows on my hedges, and it drives me nuts. But I’d hate to see it disappear.

      Love your pollen on the nose comment. Too funny.

  12. Well, since we are straying into other outdoor smells I will add this: the smell of approaching rain is called “petrichor”. We get these late afternoon pop up thunderstorms in Atlanta that last for 20 minutes or so then the sun returns. The petrichor and wet concrete smell are so connected to childhood summers where we were outside from morning until midnight. Here is the thinking behind what the rain smell is:

    • Very interesting linke, Heather. We have these same afternoon summer thundershowers in DC. I think I enjoy the smell BEFORE it rains, because it tells me refreshment is on the way. But then after the sun comes out again and it’s super-sticky and that strong smell still hangs in the air….not as nice.

  13. Have you tried edgeworthia chrysantha which is hardy to zone 7? How about Daphne’s ?


    Sent from my iPhone

  14. I can never walk by a fragrant flower without stopping for a sniff. It is, as you say, wonderfully relaxing. One of my garden dreams is to create a flower bed full of fragrant night-blooming flowers under the bedroom window and let the scents waft in on the nighttime breezes.

  15. What a great post — and everyone’s comments! You’re right that one could do worse than lose the sense of smell, but what a tough break. As Calvin noted above, scent is so tied to memory. Some slight mix of rotting vegetation and cigar smoke takes me back to tropical Havana — my husband’s first diplomatic post. Paris mornings are diesel exhaust (or used to be; the air is cleaner there now), bread, coffee, stale wine, and just a bit of urine. Sometimes, something will waft by that I can’t even identify, but I will instantly remember a moment in my childhood.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Cindy. I wish the smell of exhaust would bring on memories of Paris — for me, it conjures memories of my first (crummy) apartment, where my bedroom window looked out over the parking lot full, & where a couple of guys would let their cars idle in the early mornings. Ah, nothing like waking up to carbon monoxide fumes!

      • We once briefly lived next to a helicopter base. Good thing we do these things when young and can afford the lost brain cells.

        Paris doesn’t smell like diesel anymore; I think because of clear air laws — strange that I kind of miss it.

        I liked your description of sneaking up on home at the end of the day for a few minutes of quiet (therapy). I can remember doing that.

  16. What a great post. I totally relate to the calming effect of botanical smells. Two of my favorite smells ever are big basin sage and the slight vanilla/butterscotch scent of the bark of Jeffrey pines. The sage family in general have some great scents.

    I also really like rose-scented geraniums, Victorian box tree (smells only at night when in bloom), gardenias, buckeye/horse chestnut trees, and more. Actually, the more I try to think of what smells good the more I realize how many plants have amazing and unique scents. I even like the earthy smell of tomato plants. But I hear not all plants smell nice….like the dead horse arum that I recently read about. I’ll be avoiding growing one of those in my garden.

    • Thanks, Gordon. I just read about the dead horse arum on GardenRant. They do look pretty cool, I have to say. I don’t know what a dead horse smells like but I am guessing it’s pretty rank!

  17. If you want to try Confederate jasmine, look for the cultivar ‘Madison’. It is just a degree or two more cold hardy than the species. Also, to fill your late fall/early winter gap, you can plant Eleagnus ebengii. It usually blooms in Dec. around here and smells of jelly beans. Its fruit ripens in late winter and is a good food source for birds during scarce times, but it does eat real estate.

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