Q: I’d like to feature scent in my garden, but I also prefer to grow native species where I can. Is it possible to overlap these two categories?
A: Sure! While noninvasive nonnative species would broaden your options, there are a number of native or near-native plants with scented parts like foliage and flowers. Narrowing-down your choices will of course depend on the site conditions and how they suit certain species. (Such as how much direct summer sun the location gets, how wet or dry the soil stays, if deer browsing is a problem, etc.)
I can list a few candidates to get the creative juices flowing, though it’s not an exhaustive list (especially for floral scents). I’ll focus mostly on woody plants — trees and shrubs — since I think this is an under-appreciated trait for them, and because fragrant plant lists usually highlight perennials. Three of the items below will admittedly be cheating since they’re native to our south but don’t occur naturally in Maryland despite being sufficiently cold-hardy.
For scented foliage (when rubbed or crushed) in part shade to mostly shade:
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): spicy
- Eastern hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula): fresh hay
- Creeping wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens): wintergreen; don’t pluck too many leaves since this is a very slow-growing plant
- Anise-shrub (Illicium floridanum): spicy
For scented blooms in part shade:
- Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus): fruity
- Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia): very sugary-sweet
- Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana): somewhat sweet
- Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), coastal azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum), pinxterbloom aAzalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), and roseshell azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum): florally sweet or perfumed
- American olive (Osmanthus americanus, renamed Cartrema americana): sweet-floral
For scented foliage in full or mostly sun:
- Sweet birch (Betula lenta) or yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis): wintergreen, mostly just under the bark (snap or scratch a twig); best in our cooler western and northern counties
- Beebalms (Monarda species): minty
- Bayberry or wax myrtle (Myrica, renamed Morella): spicy
- Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina): citrusy-herbal
- Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica): citrusy
For scented blooms in full or mostly sun:
- Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana): hints of lemon
- Carolina rose (Rosa carolina), swamp rose (Rosa palustris), or Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana): mild classic rose
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis): honey-like
Q: I’ve seen purple-flowering trees in the woods as I drive around. What might they be?
A: Likely empress tree, also known as princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa). This species is invasive and originates in East Asia. Unfortunately it occurs throughout Maryland but at least it doesn’t form solid stands like callery pear. Lavender-purple flowers atop bare branches in spring are followed by huge rounded felted leaves (especially large on saplings) and rounded hard seed pods.
I’ve seen saplings vigorously grow in the most inhospitable conditions: wedged between asphalt and a brick wall, with no exposed soil in sight.
If one of these trees is in your yard, I highly recommend it be removed. If you really miss the unique look (who isn’t intrigued by true-purple-flowering trees?) then maybe use a dead or dying tree, if you happen to have one, to support an American wisteria vine (Wisteria frutescens). Granted, it’s not exactly the same aesthetic (nothing will be) but as a closer-to-native species it might at least provide more resources to local wildlife while providing a pretty floral show in late spring. The most sustainable choice, though, would be to grow a locally native flowering tree.
University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.