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Gardening just for the smell of it

March 11, 2010 |  7:18 am
Fragrant garden collage

Over the last few days, I have been corresponding with an avid fragrant gardener whose response to Emily Green's fabulous story on jasmine caught my eye. Here's a snippet:

"My Stephanotis floribunda is 30 feet wide on a 10 foot main stem," Dave wrote in the comments section of our blog. "It blooms from May/June until December. Hummingbirds nest in it, and it is drought tolerant. I rinse it in the warm months, never watering it at ground level. At 10 years old, it's one of my easiest plants. It also makes kick-ass lei. The fallen blossoms make a great addition to my compost pile. The vine is pest free."

I was sold! It also made me wonder what else this guy might have growing in his Hollywood Hills garden, so I sent him an e-mail to find out.

Fragrance seems to be of top importance to this gardener: "From coffee blossoms to gardenia to the huge rare scented Hawaiian hibiscus, Hibiscus arnottianus, outside my front door, [fragrance is] a big focus of my gardening," he wrote in an e-mail. "My favorite scented hibiscus I have smells like honey! It blooms about eight to nine months of the year (of course, not now)." As you can see from the photo he sent (far left), it looks pretty good too.

I did some digging into our archives for more information on fragrant plants. I turned up a story called "Scents and Sensibility" written by Julie Bawden Davis. Fragrance, she explains, is produced when a plant's essential oils evaporate and the molecules are released into the air. White and pastel blooms tend to be the most fragrant, Davis writes, with pale pinks being the most potent of the pastels. Bright orange-  and crimson-colored flowers may look dramatic, but they usually have little or no smell. That's because fragrant flowers produce scent to attract pollinators such as bees and discourage pests; non-fragrant flowers use color and shape to do so.

For other tips from "Scents and Sensibility," click to the jump: 

-- Deborah Netburn

Photos, from left: A hibiscus that smells like honey; a close-up of Dave's Stephanotis vine; and a double lei made of plumeria and Stephanotis. Credit: Dave

Become a fan: We've set up a page dedicated to gardening at facebook.com/latimesgarden.

To create a fragrant garden, keep the following in mind:

  • Plan a garden that is fragrant year-round. "If you time things right, you can have nice scents in the garden all year," says Alex Reynolds, a nursery professional at Kitano's Garden Center in La Palma. There is a fragrant plant for almost every month, he says. "For instance, star jasmine blooms in spring, while plumeria flowers in summer and fall. There are also ever-blooming plants that smell great most of the year, like many gardenias."

  • Consider the time of day. "Some plants, like night-blooming jessamine, have virtually no scent during daylight," Bloome says. "During the day, you could enjoy the scent of another summer and fall bloomer like lavender; once night falls, the jessamine can take over." Nicotiana is another night-blooming flower, as well as the aptly named annual moonflower, which smells so nice on late summer and fall nights.

  • Avoid combining multiple scents. "You lose out if you mix too many scents at once," says Jeff Nakasone, general manager of Certified Plant Growers in Norwalk, a wholesale grower and supplier to local independent nurseries. "Some fragrant plants don't mix well, and others just overpower everything else," he says.

  • Put fragrant plants in high-traffic areas where the odor will be most appreciated, such as in walkways and near windows.

  • Encourage aromas to linger by putting fragrant plants in sheltered spaces protected from wind. Small, enclosed gardens tend to trap and hold in fragrance much better than larger ones. Good locations for fragrance include atriums, courtyards and under trellised patio coverings, especially those surrounded by walls or shrubbery.

  • Consider more than flowers for aroma. Leaves, fruit, bark, roots, seed pods, buds and stems can also produce a wonderful array of scents. "Many plants have aromatic foliage that will scent the air when a leaf is crushed or brushed," Bloome says. Place herbal ground covers, such as thyme and mint, in pathways. Other small plants that release an aroma when brushed include rosemary, lavender and scented geraniums.

  • Put fragrant plants near nose level. "No one wants to put their heads to the ground to smell more subtly fragrant plants like alyssum and heliotrope," Nakasone says. "When possible, put mild-smelling plants in containers at an elevation." Most shrubs and vines generally grow high enough to easily be appreciated for their fragrance.


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