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Plants We Love to Brush Against
After a winter devoid not only of color but also of fragrance, I crave freesias, tuberoses, gardenias, jasmine, hyacinths — even the earthy smell of a newly opened bag of potting soil. In this weakened state of mind, I just bought two fragrant orchids, even though they’ve finished flowering and I’ll have to wait until next fall to smell them. And I’m spending more time fussing over my potted lavender plant just so I can smell the foliage. I think it’s time to make my wish list of fragrant plants for this summer’s garden.
I loosely group scented plants into three categories: the powerfully fragrant, bowl-you-over types like ‘Stargazer’ lily; the more demure types like gardenias and stocks whose fragrance waxes and wanes; and the brush-against plants that emit their distinctive scents when you touch them, such as rosemary and scented geraniums. I can’t live without any of them. But plants with scented foliage are especially fun because they so often catch us by surprise instead of boldly announcing themselves from across the room.
These plants offer the widest range of fragrances of any type of plant I know. The distinctions between the 50 or so different rose-scented varieties must be subtle, but without too much trouble you can detect differences between plants that smell like apricot, apple, pineapple, strawberry, lemon, lime, orange, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, coconut, pine, old spice, or mint. And that’s only a sampling.
In the 1800s the French extracted the oil of rose-scented geraniums for perfume, and the essential oils of some varieties are still used in the perfume industry. On the other hand, some types are so pungent they repel. You’re no doubt familiar with the oil of certain lemon-scented types: citronella, a common insect repellent used in sprays and candles.
I like to grow scented geraniums in pots to keep them within reach — on the deck or patio in the summer and in the kitchen in winter. Just don’t overdo nitrogen fertilizer because it can reduce the fragrance.
Rosemary and Lavender
Although more limited in the range of different scents they offer, rosemary and lavender are wonderfully fragrant plants that I never tire of. I grow some of the hardier lavender in the garden and more tender varieties in pots that I bring inside in winter. Rosemary is best grown in a container in our region because it won’t make it through our winters outside. Even bringing it indoors is no guarantee that it will make it until spring. The dry indoor air can dry out the needles and soil before you realize what’s happening. Sadly, I lost one indoors this winter, but I won’t hesitate to buy a new one this spring.
In the past few years I’ve become hooked on Agastache (ag-ah-STACK-key), also called hummingbird mint or hyssop, whose grayish-green foliage smells like a combination of licorice and mint. Blue-flowered anise hyssop used to be the only variety in this family of upright-growing, bushy perennials that were widely available, but newer introductions, such as ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Desert Sunrise’, are now easier to find. They have the most striking flowers of any of these scented plants — tall spikes of long-lasting blossoms in pink, orange, salmon, blue, and purple. I’m especially fond of Agastache rupestris because it’s so fragrant and showy (flowers are pink and salmon), and it’s the hardiest of the lot. All agastache require well-drained soil, especially during the winter. Spread gravel over the crowns for an extra measure of protection.
It should come as no surprise that all of these plants are herbs, and there are many, many more worth keeping close at hand for their aromatic foliage, even if you don’t put them to culinary use.
Now, while I wait for the snow to melt, I think I’ll go repot some plants for the pure, olfactory pleasure of it.