Fragrant Shurbs for Every Season
by Barbara Blossom Ashmun
Scent is subtler than visual beauty, and adds a romantic, mysterious element to the garden. Invisible but alluring, it catches you by surprise, enticing you forward to find its source. As early as February, a whiff of sweetness sneaks up on me, commanding my attention. "Wake up," it whispers in my ear, "flowers are blooming, spring will be here soon." I follow my nose and find dwarf sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana humilis) in full bloom. This modest evergreen shrub has tiny white flowers tucked between the axils of its shiny dark green leaves-- you'd never notice them if it weren't for their intoxicating perfume. For the most pleasure, plant dwarf sweet box near a doorway or window. It's a shade-lover, perfect for the north side of the house.
Everyone covets winter daphne (Daphne odora) for its swooningly sweet pink flowers. One stem will scent an entire room. It would be the perfect entry garden plant if it weren't for its vulnerability to winter winds and ice, which cause the stems to crack and rot. This tragedy can be prevented by planting winter daphne in the shelter of a courtyard or close to a porch. Old specimens in established neighborhoods are often found along an east foundation wall--their evergreen leaves hide the gray concrete, and the dainty pink flowers welcome visitors with a burst of fragrance.
Tougher, and even showier, Daphne burkwoodii Somerset is one of my favorite plants for spring fragrance. This deciduous shrub is covered with small pink flowers in April. At maturity it stands four feet tall and makes a delightful accent in a border that mixes shrubs and perennials. Similar in size, dwarf Meyer's lilac (Syringa meyeri) is nearly as fragrant as its taller relatives, and is much more easily placed in a small garden than standard lilacs which grow to the size of small trees. The dainty oval leaves that clothe its branches after bloom time turn brilliant red in fall.
I find mock orange irresistible--its sweet aroma wafts freely through the garden on every spring breeze. An old leggy specimen that I inherited from the previous homeowner stands eight feet tall. Each year, when it blooms, I prune out several of the oldest canes to encourage new basal growth--this allows me plenty of flowering stems for indoor bouquets. More compact forms of mock orange, are suitable for small gardens. Belle Etoile is a favorite, with large, single white flowers marked by distinctive mauve centers.
Old roses begin blooming in May, offering rich perfume in late spring and early summer. Bourbons, damasks, albas, gallicas, mosses and rugosas are all likely groups of roses to choose from for fragrance--the difficulty is narrowing down the candidates. You'll have an easier time if you keep in mind a universal principle of beauty: "form follows function." Find out the ultimate size of the rose that you're in love with and plant it where its shape will be most useful.
For example, save the big shrubs for hedging and screening instead of trying to prune them to a smaller size in a border. I've built an informal privacy hedge on the west perimeter of my garden from the following tall, fragrant beauties: "La Ville de Bruxelles," a damask rose with generous, double pink flowers; Ispahan, another damask, full of countless medium-sized pink roses; and Hansa, a rugosa rose with double, purplish-pink flowers which form big shiny hips in fall.
If you're looking for a medium-sized bush for borders, four-foot-tall Madame Isaac Pereire, a blowsy Bourbon rose with arching canes full of opulent purplish-pink flowers is deliciously fragrant and reblooms throughout the summer. Give her at least six feet of leeway to spread gracefully sideways.'Gertrude Jekyll' is an English rose that I can't live without: deep pink, very double flowers open to show a beautiful pattern and exude a powerful perfume. Upright and tall, Gertrude Jekyll is best used as a low climber on a wall or gazebo where the stiff canes can be lightly tied to prevent them from snapping off at the base.
Pineapple broom (Cytisus battandieri, also known as Argyrocytisus battandieri) may take some hunting for, but is well worth the search. Silvery leaves and yellow, pineapple-scented flower spikes in summer are the rich rewards. The best place for this exotic shrub is a south or west-facing wall where the extra warmth and shelter will provide a suitable home for this native of Morocco, hardy to zones 7-9.
For fall fragrance, try false holly (also known as holly olive, and Chinese holly) (Osmanthus ilicifolius, Osmanthus heterophyllus, Osmanthus aquifolium). Although suffering from an overabundance of names, false holly makes a handsome evergreen accent at the back of the border. Hidden among the dark, shiny coarsely toothed leaves that resemble holly, clusters of tiny white flowers scent the air in late summer and autumn. Variegated forms of this attractive shrub are especially ornamental--creamy white leaf margins on Osmanthus Variegatus and yellow edges on Osmanthus Aureomarginatus add sparkle to borders in partial shade