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Fragrant Flora

Master gardener Paul James and gardener Danielle Ferguson reveal tips for planting a fragrant garden.

Often in landscaping the emphasis is placed on the visual aspect of the plants, but another ingredient shouldn't be ignored, suggests master gardener Paul James. "A garden that looks good is nothing to sneeze at, but I also like to follow my nose when selecting plants. Scent must be part of some invisible magnetic force field because it causes an overpowering desire to stop and smell the flowers. Fragrance and flowers are the dynamic duo of the gardening world. Good thing, too, because the same thing that attracts people to flowers attracts bugs to blooms."

Fragrance and pollination (how plants set seed and multiply) are closely related. Bright colors can attract pollinating insects, but when genetics hasn't bestowed a vivid palette on a flower, a bloom must rely on its bouquet. "It's interesting that the white flowers tend to be a little more fragrant than the colorful flowers," says gardener Danielle Ferguson, "and the reason for that is because they have to attract their pollinators by their fragrance."

Nicotiana is a flowering tobacco that night moths, one of their main pollinators, are drawn to this plant with white blooms. Ferguson says these white flowers release an amazing scent that permeates the garden. One of her favorite plants is the Cimifuga.

Also known as bugbane, this plant features beautiful black foliage. "It's one of my favorites because of its beautiful lacy black foliage which grows four feet tall. And in late summer these wands start to come up five to six feet, and they're coated with these fragrant white flowers that just waft in the garden."

Flowers can be wonderfully fragrant, but so can other parts of the plant. Bark, seeds and foliage can have powerful scents as well. Brush this thyme, and the leaves release the odiferous essential oils. Foliage can have a wide variety of fragrances as well, many of which are rather unusual.

"This is the peanut butter bush. When you take the leaf and crush it between your fingers, it smells just like peanut butter," Ferguson says.

There's no question that fragrances conjure up memories and associations. James suggests revisiting your childhood by planting a peanut butter bush near a few Iris pallida, whose flowers smell just like grape jelly.

Location is also an important consideration, of course. Place the plants where they make the most sense. "Our garden is for strolling, so the fragrances are placed along the paths to keep you going from one area to the next," says Ferguson.

Pathways, arbors, gates, trellis and nearby windows are all great places for fragrant plants. With a little nosing around, you're sure to find the right spot. "This is one of my favorite places to sit in the evening," says Ferguson. "At the end of a long day, it's just a wonderful spot, except that it's missing fragrance."

So Ferguson has chosen an angel's trumpet, which is an annual in Oregon. It will grow to be four feet tall in one season, and when it blooms, the long bell-shaped flowers will give off a soft citrus smell that intensifies in the late afternoon. As it matures, the angel's trumpet will herald in a heavenly aroma in this sitting area.

At the end of the season it can be replaced with a plant that's fragrant in colder temperatures. Wintersweet, or Chimonanthus praecox is fragrant in December when it is in full bloom and the leaves are off the shrub, and it's coated with little translucent yellow flowers that are amazingly fragrant.

There are even fragrant plants for shady spots. One of her favorites is a hosta called 'Diana Remembered'. "There are some wonderful hostas that are fragrant, and they smell like gardenias. Most of them are late-summer bloomers, but you wouldn't believe how wonderful the smell is." One word of warning about fragrances; just because one person loves the smell of gardenias doesn't mean everyone will. Smell is uniquely personal.

Quite a few folks however agree on one satisfying scent--that of a rose. "Roses are probably the most beloved fragrant plant of all, especially in the U.S.," says Ferguson. "You can't think of fragrant plants without thinking of roses." Ferguson recommends smelling a rose blossom before you buy the plant. Hybridizers breed for better color, flower size and disease resistance, and fragrance is often sacrificed. Look for heirloom and more old-fashioned varieties for the more traditional rose smell.

So do you have a nose for fragrant gardening? Or do you have a garden for your nose? "Sniff around for plants that smell as good as they look and before long, your yard will be absolutely scent-sational," James says. "Keep in mind that too many fragrant plants in one area of the garden can be a bit overwhelming, like wearing too much cologne or perfume. In other words, less is generally more."


    • Danielle Ferguson
      Ferguson’s Fragrant Nursery
      21763 French Prairie Rd. NE
      St. Paul, OR 97137
      Phone: 503-633-4585
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