Flowers for Fragrance

Flowers for Fragrance

Written by Peter Fitzmaurice

Everyone loves splashes of vivid colour in a hanging basket, or marvels at a landscape that displays an everchanging rainbow of colours from season to season. There is, however, nothing more intoxicating than the fragrance of a honeysuckle on the still evening air, or a waft of fragrance from a nearby Star Jasmine Trachelospermum japonicum. With summer fast approaching, I can’t wait to smell all the fragrances in the air! 

The strongest memories of my childhood come flooding back when I smell gardenia blossoms. The scent takes me right back to the front steps of my family home in Cape Town, my dad watering this beautiful glossy leaved plant, telling me how he’d planted it when I was just a little boy. It was over 6 feet tall and full of perfect, white, headily scented, rose-like flowers. I highly recommend that when next looking for a plant for a container or space in your garden, keep in mind this important characteristic that tends to get forgotten: Fragrance!

Place scented plants near an entryway, outdoor dining space or open window where their fragrance can be fully appreciated, even indoors. Here are some of my favorites, and how and where they would flourish:

Sweet alyssum is a lovely annual that produces a low-growing carpet of honey scented blooms in shades of purple, mauve or white all summer long. Flower power can be slowed by intense summer heat, but plants will bloom again, once things cool down a bit. of my favourite scented annuals! Stocks (Matthiola incana) are a delight in the early spring, with colourful displays of softly fragrant lavender, pink, red and white blossoms. Starter plants transplanted to a cool, sunny location in April/May will fill in and begin blooming in July/August. While on the subject of stocks: I wish more folk knew about the delightful evening scented stock, Matthiola longepetala. While the flowers are unremarkable, its fragrance is incredible. The fragrance intensifies at dusk when the flowers open, making it the perfect addition to a window box or planter in a sunny spot near an outdoor dining table. Although the plants themselves are fairly spindly, they are wonderful spilling out from between more impressive looking plants.

The colour of heliotrope is beautiful, from the intense purplish blue of Heliotrope ‘Marine’ and the soft lilac blue of ‘Sachet’ to the crisp white of ‘White Lady’ Although technically a perennial, Heliotrope does not like the cold and will freeze if left outdoors in our winters. I have overwintered one in a slightly heated cold frame, so it is worth a try. To my nose, Heliotrope smells like a cross between vanilla and baby powder. This plant can easily be popped into the side of a hanging basket to add fragrance and colour to your planting or be the centre of attention in a mixed planter in full to part sun. One thing that I have grown to respect with Heliotrope is that they do not like to dry out for long periods of time and they hate soggy feet.

Asiatic and Oriental lilies are some of the most dramatic fragrant plants that we can grow in our gardens here on the West Coast and the Okanagan. Technically a perennial but often planted as a bulb in the fall, and more commonly in the early spring, these plants are immensely rewarding, not only for their stately looks, but also, for their beautiful fragrance. Often a dormant bulb when you get them, I love the fact that you just bury this strange looking cluster of bulbs, and in no time, up sprouts stems and leaves topped with fragrant flowering masterpieces. Some lilies are grown for their good looks only, at the expense of fragrance, so be sure to check the label when buying one. My favourite lily is ‘Anouska,’ a double that has not lost its fragrance in the hybridisation.

Peonies truly offer the best of both worlds. Not only are peony flowers beautiful they also have the finest of fragrances. Prized for their often “double-double” flower heads and voluptuous petal formations, they are also known for their intoxicating perfume. My favourite peony has always been ‘Bowl of Beauty’ with its rose-pink anemone style flower with masses of strap shaped yellow petal centres. Thank goodness ‘Bowl of Beauty’ did also not lose its fragrance in the breeding process. 




If you are looking for a “welcoming” evergreen hedge near an entryway, there is nothing better than sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) for fragrance. The plant is neat and compact and needs minimal attention, but in late January, early February you will be delighted with its citrusy fragrance from almost insignificant white blooms. 

While on the subject of broadleaf evergreens, let’s take a look at Mexican mock orange (Choisya ternata) which is in full of bloom April – June. Though the main appeal of this shrub is its beautifully fragrant blooms, you will be happy to know it is also evergreen and will grow to around 8 feet if left to its own devices. It can, however, easily be kept to around 5- 6 feet. Its namesake, the deciduous mock orange (Philadelphus coronarious) is a wonderful shrub that once established, will become a cloud of heavenly scent in mid summer. There is nothing quite like the scent of the mock orange blossom! This beauty can grow to 10 feet tall and as wide, although several cultivars are available which will grow between 4 & 6 feet high.



A beautifully scented plant that has received renewed interest in the last decade or so, is the butterfly bush. The species Buddleia davidii has been identified as invasive in BC by the BC Invasive Species Council and is considered invasive in many other regions of North America as well. In response, some beautifully compact and noteworthy new non-invasive cultivars have been introduced. Imagine sprays of purple, red, lilac or mauve, (even white) that emit clouds of fragrance attracting hummingbirds and butterflies alike. Try Proven WinnersTM cultivars “Miss Pearl”, “Miss Molly” or “Lo and Behold” to name but a few.

I would be remiss if I did not at least mention a few of my all-time favourite fragrant shrubs lilacs and Exbury azaleas that come in an amazing variety of different colours, shapes and sizes. Great in the landscape or in a container in a sunny spot on a patio. These beautiful plants will add another element to your garden by providing fragrance and perhaps a bit of nostalgia as well.


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