May will always mean Mother’s Day for me, even though my Mom’s been gone for two years now. As children, we learned that the best way to honor Mom on her day was to bring her a bouquet from the garden. We’d pick whatever was blooming at our Pennsylvania home – tiny bouquets of lilies of the valley or sweet violets, or giant bouquets of lilacs – the scent was as important as the bloom. To this day, I prefer a plant with a pleasant fragrance.
Why do flowers have fragrance? It’s not for our enjoyment, but rather for propagation: their scent is a signal (‘here I am!’) to whatever critters pollinate that specific plant. So for plants pollinated by bees or butterflies, the scent might be sweet or spicy. This attracts the pollinator, which moves pollen from one part of the plant to another (or from one plant to another) and fertilizes the plant so it can produce seeds. In return, the pollinator gets sweet nectar or pollen as a food reward for its work.
Not all flowers produce a pleasant aroma; to attract flies or beetles, the flower may reek. I have one such plant in my gardens: dragon arum (also called voodoo lily, Dracunculus vulgaris) has a purplish jack-in-the-pulpit-type bloom that is quite exotic. Each year when it blooms, I stand on my deck and wonder, ‘What’s that stench? Has something died here?’ Most of the time, the stench is coming from my voodoo lily. Luckily the scent only lasts a few days and the bloom lasts much longer, for my enjoyment.
This illustrates another point on bloom fragrance: timing. Blooms often release their fragrance only when they can be pollinated, when the pollen is ripe. Another facet of timing is when the plant’s pollinators are active. Flowers that are pollinated by bats or moths will be more fragrant in the evening or at night. These include night-blooming jasmine, flowering tobaccos, and moonflowers. These blooms are often white or light in color; plant a moonlight garden for these night bloomers and you’ll have a feast for your eyes and your nose.
It seems that many old-fashioned plants smelled better than modern hybrids. Some of this can be due to breeding – in responding to consumer demands for larger blooms, or healthier plants, fragrance can be lost. Luckily, growers are now trying to reintroduce the scent into plants such as roses, so that we can enjoy both the beautiful blooms and the intoxicating scents.
Floral scent is very personal – it’s actually determined genetically by the olfactory receptors in our noses. For example, many of my friends love the sweet scent of privet that’s currently in bloom, but I find it totally unappealing. So if you’re looking to set a fragrance palette, make sure you smell the blooms of the plants you’re choosing, and don’t just rely on recommendations, even mine. The list of plants, below, is a starting point to add some fragrance to your East Texas garden.
List of some fragrant plants from my East Texas garden:
Shrubs: the best part about a fragrant shrub is that they often scent the whole yard. Sweet olive or tea olive (tiny flowers with a powerful scent); Burkwood viburnum (one of the first to bloom in the spring, spicy smell like old-fashioned petunias); gardenia (one bloom in a bowl will scent a room); banana shrub (magnolia relative with blooms that smell like ripe bananas); Virginia sweetspire (I get a sweet vanilla scent from mine) ; sweet shrub (fruity scent that changes through the day); elaeagnus (a fall bloomer with a pervasive scent); some roses (for a specific fragrance, you can do an advanced search online– just email me for detailed instructions).
Perennials: daffodils such as jonquils (sweet, juicy-fruit fragrance) and tazettas (often musky like paperwhites); four o’clocks (sweet smell in the evening); ginger (an intensely sweet honeysuckle fragrance); phlox (scent is best on mature blooms); some crinum (sweet scent); some angel trumpets (a range of fragrances, including baby powder, bubblegum, cherry, citrus, and musk)
Annuals or tropicals: night-blooming jasmine, flowering tobaccos, and moonflowers, all of which have a sweet almost overpowering scent
About the author: Lin is a Texas Master Gardener in Wood County. Email gardening questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join her and other volunteers each Wednesday morning at 8:30, at the Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, to learn more about gardening in East Texas.