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Smell This

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Story & Photography By Jean Starr

How many times have you thrust your nose into a bouquet or a flower and come up empty? Or worse yet, been knocked back by an unexpected fragrance that was surprising in such a beautiful blossom? Peony scents, for example, have been classified into five categories: rose, honey, lemon, yeasty but also bitter and medicinal.

Scent has often been sacrificed for larger, longer-lasting, more colorful blooms that dazzle on first glance and hold up on the long journey to the florist. Producing fragrance draws on the plant’s resources and takes energy, which is why fragrant plants don’t last as long in bloom as the non-fragrant varieties. The breeder may thus decide that the plant’s energy can be better spent on producing larger flowers. When it comes to roses and faced with the choice between hardiness and fragrance, commercial breeders have often chosen in favor of hardiness.

Roses & Coneflowers

The widespread loss of fragrance in roses isn’t as recent as we might think. American garden designer Louise Beebe Wilder wrote about it in her 1932 book, The Fragrant Path. She laments, “It is hard to believe that a scentless rose could have great vogue, but there is that chill and soulless beauty, ‘Frau Karl Druschki’, to the contrary notwithstanding.” She referred to the hybrid perpetual rose, introduced in 1901, which for many years was the most popular white rose in existence despite its lack of scent.

There are still fragrant roses, although most would be a disappointment to Wilder’s sensibilities. Modern hybridizers have managed to keep a bit of fragrance in plants that are disease-resistant and hardy, including ‘Gourmet Popcorn’, and Oso Easy ‘Paprika’ and ‘Peachy Cream’. A vase of any of these might not perfume a room, but they’re worth growing. Some rugosa roses are very fragrant.

When so many new coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) started hitting the runway like a herd of hungry models, some were fragrant. One with a scent reminiscent of roses is ‘Solar Flare’, bred by Richard Saul of Itsaul Plants. It has also been one of the strongest growers in my garden.


The divas of mid-summer make a big impact, reaching heights of up to 4 feet and more, with waxy blooms emitting exotic perfume. Lily hybrids have intrigued even the most casual gardeners with colors that range from vivid to pastel and fragrances from delicate to downright off-putting. Some of the best-behaved scents come from the OTs, or Orienpets, a name that refers to their Oriental/trumpet lily parentage. One of the best is ‘Conca d’Or’, a sturdy 4-footer with a sweet fragrance that perfumes its surroundings outside but isn’t too strong to bring indoors in a vase. ‘Silk Road’ is another very fragrant Orienpet.


Alicia Green, coordinator at the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, uses plants with fragrant leaves or flowers for their therapeutic properties. “If a plant has an aromatic property, it encourages people to interact with it,” she explains. “People are curious about it.”

Plants with a dual purpose are especially valuable in horticultural therapy. “Scented geraniums (Pelargonium) are great for therapy projects, especially those with fuzzy leaves,” she says. “Buddleia and salvia are not only fragrant; they attract butterflies and hummingbirds as well.” Green will whip up a floral dessert this summer with chocolate cosmos, coconut-scented nemesia and cherry pie plant (Heliotrope). And both the leaves and blossoms of lavender have a distinctive scent.


For long-term color, annuals are key. But adding scent to the equation often changes their constitution from durable to delicate. Three of the most fragrant flowers for late spring struggle mightily when summer starts to sizzle.

Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) should be started from seed as soon as the soil dries out enough to be worked, or in a pot indoors a month before the last frost.

Stock (Matthiola incana) is usually offered as a mixed seed strain in flats, so they’re inexpensive enough to plant plenty, although the white-flowered doubles seem to have the best scent.

Nemesia fruticans ‘Opal Innocence’ has a fragrance described as sweetly fruity with vanilla grace notes. According to Proven Winners, flowering can slow when evening temps reach into the 70s or above. They recommend pruning nemesia back when it loses its blooms so that it branches and comes into flower again when the weather cools later in the season.

Other Fragrant Annuals

Heat-loving annuals such as flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) are best started from seed and don’t do much until the soil warms up. But as a hot afternoon turns to a warm evening, the petals take on more substance and emit a jasmine-like fragrance that can stop you in your tracks. There are several species of nicotiana, but the most commonly found is Nicotiana x sanderae, a hybrid of N. alata and N. forgetiana. N. alata and the towering N. sylvestris are very fragrant as well. The short hybrid nicotianas sold as bedding plants usually have no scent.

Chocolate-scented cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) sends out its scent on warm, still days. I was struck by the unmistakable fragrance of chocolate as I roamed around Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisc. one September afternoon. When I began to look around for the source, I noticed another woman doing the same thing. “There is a cosmos that smells like chocolate … ,” I mumbled as much to myself as to the woman. And then I saw it – just one unassuming deep red flower of a size that belied the strength of its fragrance.

Tropical or nearly-tropical flowering plants can take most of the summer to bloom. I had a ginger (Hedychium) that grew to the point where it burst its pot, but it didn’t fully open its flowers until mid-October. I kept it in the garage for the winter, and it sprouted when I brought it inside in March. But even starting it early didn’t help. Most tropical plants need long-term heat, and in some summers, we just don’t have it.
One of the easiest tropical plants to grow, and even to overwinter in a sunny window, is Brunfelsia jamaicensis, or “lady of the night.” I’ve had the same plant in the same pot for at least three years, bringing it outside to thrive in the heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer. Brunfelsia australis, also known as “yesterday, today and tomorrow,” has fragrant purple flowers that fade to light blue and then white – hence the name.

Whether you prefer to buy plants at garden center, start them from seed, or order them online from specialty growers, it’s really not that hard to create a fragrant garden of your own. Here are a few to start with.

Fragrant Peonies: These herbaceous peonies are cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora.

‘Big Ben’
‘Chestine Gowdy’
‘Edulis Superba’
‘Laura Dessert’
‘Madame Ducel’
‘Myrtle Gentry’
‘Pink Derby’
‘Port Royal’
‘White Cap’
‘Festiva Maxima’

Fragrant Annuals and Tropical Plants:

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
Chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus)
Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
Stock (Matthiola incana)
Cherry pie plant (Heliotropium)
Orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata)
Ginger lily (Hedychium)
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia)
Lady of the night (Brunfelsia)

Fragrant Perennials, Shrubs and Trees:

Astilbe (some varieties)
Bugbane (Actaea racemosa)
Coneflowers (some Echinacea hybrids and species)
Fragrant snowball or Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum x carlcephalum or V. carlesii).
Hardy carnation (Dianthus)
Hummingbird mint (Agastache aurantiaca)
Lilium (usually Orientals, Trumpets and their hybrids)
Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii)
Phlox paniculata
Roses (some varieties)

Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications. She’s the editor and secretary of the Midwest Peony Society, a former columnist in the Times of Northwest Indiana for nine years and currently writes a blog, Petal Talk.



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