Fragrance is so fundamental to our experience of flowers and gardens that most people react instinctively when they see beautiful blooms: They put their noses in them.
The delicate fragrance of a rose, the sweetness of jasmine and the heady perfume of lilacs have a magical way of making the hectic world outside the garden disappear, while the gardener breathes in a moment of peace.
"It's imbibing a memory," Atlanta garden designer Ryan Gainey says. "I carry scents in my mind, and they are a possession that can carry me back to any time, any place."
Gainey grows more than 60 fragrant plants in his one-acre garden. The plantings are carefully arranged and repeated, he says, "so the fragrance fades, and then it pops you in the nostrils again, in another place. You travel around the garden and you're constantly running into a wonderful fragrance."
Like a dab of fine perfume, fragrant plants add a layer of allure to a garden and help establish its mood. A preference for the distinct fragrance of daphnes, gardenias, sweet peas or violets reveals the gardener's style, just as woodsy, floral, fruity or spicy perfumes hint at the personalities of the people who wear them.
All sorts of annual and perennial flowers, trees, shrubs and vines add fragrance to a garden. When you plan for garden fragrance, think about how you use the garden and how it changes through the seasons. Try to create a succession of scents, rather than a riotous confrontation among the many fragrant possibilities.
Along a front walk, a border of spicy-scented dianthus or earthy French lavender creates a good first impression. In the back yard, a pot of exotic lilies or honey-scented nicotiana by the patio will make a cold drink in the evening all the more refreshing. A pergola dripping with pale blue wisteria flowers or covered with honeysuckle blossoms perfumes the night air.
It's nice to encounter fragrance at various levels, to catch the deep, romantic perfume of magnolia blossoms as it drifts from the trees, and the cherry-pie scent of heliotropes when you're weeding the flower bed.
Some fragrances are elusive. The summer-lilac aroma of butterfly bush can be hard to capture in the garden, but the scent of a lavish bouquet of these beautiful flowers will fill a porch or a hall.
The more time you spend in the garden, the more you will appreciate the subtleties of fragrance. Take a walk through the vegetable garden in the morning, pinching the leaves of tomato plants to release the scent of a summer day. Roses smell heavenly in the morning, but they develop a stronger, more robust fragrance by mid-day. Boxwoods are best when they're big enough and close enough to the garden paths that you brush past them on your rounds, stirring up their strange, smoky fragrance.
Lilies are decidedly more fragrant in the evening, says Peter Loewer, whose books "Fragrant Gardens" (Houghton Mifflin, $14) and "The Evening Garden" (out of print, but may be available in libraries or used-book stores) emphasize the importance of plants that bloom after the gardener comes home from work. "There's something about the stars, and the incredibly blowzy lilies -- they are open during the day, but their scent comes out best later," he says. "You have to wait for it."
Loewer also recommends moon-vine for its glowing and fragrant white flowers, which open at dusk. Night-blooming tropical water lilies ('Texas Shell Pink' is a nice one) are another excellent exotic bloom for gardeners who work from 9 to 5. If you don't have a water garden, you can grow them in a tub on the deck. The peacock orchid (Acidenthera bicolor) is easy to grow and blooms profusely in late summer, releasing its fragrance at the end of the day. In Loewer's garden of night-blooming fragrant plants, he also grows lemon-scented daylilies, yuccas, Angel's trumpet (Brugmansia) and four o'clocks.
Of course, some sweet floral fragrances can be overwhelming. "I never liked Evening in Paris perfume," Loewer says. "And some plants -- especially when they bloom indoors -- you run for the hills."
But let the moonlight work on your fragrant garden, and the effect is unforgettable, Loewer says. "When you temper any smell with the wonderful, cool scent of the night air, how can you go wrong?"
Lilypons Water Gardens
600 Lilypons Road
Buckeystown, Md. 21717
Lilypons sells water lilies of all kinds, including the night-blooming tropical water lily 'Texas Shell Pink' ($29). The catalog is free.
1111 Dawson Road
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516
Niche lists the fragrant, night-blooming yellow daylily (Hemerocallis citrina, $8) in its catalog of perennial plants of all kinds. The catalog is $3.
1 Garden Lane,
Hodges, S.C. 29695
Wayside sells an enormous variety of fragrant plants. Wayside is the exclusive source for a number of Romantica roses, hybridized in France. The catalog is free. For roses, ask for the Complete Rose Catalog.