A few months ago Sue at the blog Backlane Notebook suggested we start a monthly ‘Scent in the Garden’ meme. Being a bit of a fragrant plant lover myself I thought it was a fantastic idea.
For centuries scent was the most important characteristic of a plant. In the days before bathrooms and a plethora of lotions and potions to make us and the world around us smell good, the fragrance of plants was an essential way to combat the many whiffs and pongs that would have been a constant onslaught to our olfactory organs. Nosegays – small posies of scented flowers and foliage – would have been pinned to your dress or coat or simply held under your nose in an attempt to mask whatever unpleasant aroma was in the vicinity. I just love that term ‘nosegay’ – in medieval Britain it meant an ornament to please the nose. Nowadays we have Glade plug-ins.
Now I certainly don’t want to return to the days when the contents of chamber pots were flung out of windows but I do love the idea of embracing fragrant plants and natural perfumes rather than the artificial chemical air fresheners we have today. But, ever since plant breeders started crossing varieties to create fancier flowers and supposedly ‘better’ plants scent has been the feature most likely to be lost in the process. Perhaps as we have become cleaner our interest in fragrant plants has waned. Certainly many shop-bought cut flowers are scentless, and for a period in the mid to late 20th century flower form and disease resistance were higher on the list of priorities for plant breeders, particularly when it came to that classic of all fragrant plants, the rose. Why you would want a rose with no scent is a mystery to me.
I have been enjoying the Great British Garden Revival series of programmes on TV and it has been fantastic to see scent playing a big part, with Toby Buckland championing scented plants and Christine Walkden campaigning for people to rediscover the carnation, a plant which has suffered more than most as a result of the global trade in flowers. So it seems like a great opportunity to seek out, to share and to celebrate all that is scented in our gardens. Sue and I hope you’ll join us each month throughout the coming year by posting about what’s filling your garden or allotment with fragrance. It doesn’t just have to be in your garden though, if you spot a deliciously perfumed plant whilst on your travels, you sniff out something in the hedgerows or you have an indoor plant filling your home with scent please feel free to share them too.
Winter might seem like an unlikely time of the year to be able to talk about scented plants but it’s surprising how many shrubs have evolved to flower at this time of year. It’s not easy attracting the small number of pollinating insects which might be flying around in winter, so to maximize their chances of grabbing the attention of a passing bee many winter flowering shrubs have incredible, intoxicating fragrances which will knock your socks off. One of my favourites is the winter-flowering honeysuckle. It’s a scruffy, unkempt plant for much of the year. It doesn’t have much structure other than looking like an unruly twiggy clump. Every year I debate whether to dig it out. Then it had a stay of execution when we started to think about moving as I didn’t want to have to replant the gaping hole it would leave behind. I’m also a bit sentimental about it. My winter honeysuckle was taken from a larger plant in the grounds of the college where I studied horticulture. A fellow student, Peter spotted a stem which had bent down and where it had touched the ground it had rooted. He dug it up and gave it to me. It’s all the more sentimental as Peter died a few years later.
Then, of course, every winter the plant does its thing and I’m smitten all over again. Tiny, delicate ivory flowers with strikingly yellow stamens appear along the woody stems, looking like miniature summer-flowering honeysuckle flowers. And the fragrance is just beautiful. I spent Sunday afternoon in the garden tidying up dying and soggy foliage to reveal the spring bulbs poking through and the honeysuckle perfume which hung in the air was such a treat.
You might say, ‘What’s the point of fragrant flowers in winter, it’s too cold, too wet or snowy to venture outdoors and appreciate them’, but a front garden filled with scented flowers will greet you every time your return home. Even a container planted with Christmas box (sarcoccocca) placed by your front door will raise the spirits on a January day. And, of course, you can always pick a few stems and bring them indoors to enjoy the perfume in the warmth.
My own January fragrant plant count includes Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Viburnum tinus ‘Gwenllian’, Sarcoccocca and the winter-flowering honeysuckle, which isn’t too bad but I would love more. In particular, I covet a wintersweet (Chimonanthes), although I’m dismayed to hear it can take up to eight years from planting to flowering. One of my quests is to fill my garden with as many scented plants as possible, so I’m hoping that if you’ll join in this meme I’ll be able to uncover lots of perfumed gems to add too my plant wish list.
If you’d like to join in with ‘Scent in the Garden’ just post about what’s perfuming the air in your garden/growing space and leave a comment here or at Sue’s blog Backlane Notebook with a link to your post.