This feature was written for City Planter
Not relied upon in the way sight, sound, touch and taste are, smell is possibly the most emotive of all the senses. The vapours that creep up our noses are able to transport us to other realms. “Scent cuts through time in an instant and makes a connection that you might not have thought of for years” says Stephen Lacey, author of ‘Scent in Your Garden’ and a fragrance aficionado with a sensitive nose.
Perfume may be powerful stuff but it is often an afterthought for gardeners, and many plants have been bred to look rather than smell good. “Scent has always been greatly valued, but the scented garden as a genre has never been a major thing – it’s more of an undercurrent. For me it doubles the pleasure of the plant. It puts the experience of the garden into another orbit as you walk around and gets these ambushes of scent” says Stephen.
Powerful flowers for tiny spaces
Some flowers hold their scent, while others float it on the air. In general you want to be able to get up close and personal with scented flowers and leaves – they need to be within reach so you can stick your nose among them and get a deeper draught. It seems like the tiny urban garden, balcony or window box, are all therefore perfect places to experiment with fragrant flowers. Position plants close to nose height, on tables, window ledges and wall tops.
“Some scents act as beacons for night flying insects, like evening flowering honeysuckles and tobacco flowers – they can fill a little garden with scent. I know a small London garden that’s filled with the tropical perfume of Japanese honeysuckle” says Stephen. “Warmth brings out the smells. Shelter is also important, as wind can disperse scent really quickly – that’s where a town garden really scores because it can usually capture the scent better with its walls and screening.”
Stephen’s recommendations for urban scent planting include Daphne Odora, which is compact and has a really fruity scent; Magnolia Merrill, a small tree with white spidery flowers and a spiced smell; spicy spring Virburnums; and Rosa Primula, a delicate pale yellow rose that smells of incense. Lots of bulbs have scents too, which is often missed. “Most crocuses smell of honey. For my London balcony, I always plant up a pot of crocuses and miniature irises and keep it on a table” says Stephen.
The scent families
Tara Maloney works at the gorgeous Petersham Nurseries in Richmond where, among other things, she runs a workshop that explains how to blend fragrances into an urban garden. Like Stephen, she admits she has a very sensitive nose. Tara believes it’s really important to do your research when planning a scent garden. She recommends you keep a journal of smells you find and like, as everyone’s sense of smell is different – one person’s ‘sweet’ could be another’s person’s ‘rotten’.
“Plants flower and smell for quite a short period of time – classifying plants into the type of smell and when they flower is important, so you get a flow of smells you like throughout the year” says Tara. “Plants serve their pollinators not us, and are in tune with their natural environment. The Mirabilis Jalapa, for example, flowers and pushes its fragrance out at 4pm because that’s when the insect it wants to attract becomes active.”
Tara – inspired by Stephen’s book – explains that we can group scents into distinct families so that they’re easier to identify and combine – exotic/heady/tropical (like Jasminum, Nicotiana, Tuberose, Lillies); spicy (like Dianthus, Daphne, Primula, Phlox); vanilla/almond (like Clematis, Heliotrope, Buddleja); fresh/lettuce (like Wisteria, Coronilla, Lupin, Acacia); complex French perfume (Mahonia, Skimmia, Sweet pea, Hyacinth, Cyclamen); rose (the Longicupsis variety smells of bananas); fruit (lemon scented Evening Primrose and Mirabilis Jalapa, plum scented Freesias, apricot Amaryllis Belladonna); and honey (like Crocus Chrysanthus, Edgeworthia, Euphorbia).
Plant like a perfumer
Tara often takes inspiration from perfume when designing scent combinations for outside spaces. Blending isn’t essential, but it’s a great way to create a stronger and more complex effect. So, if you want to mix things up, you could make like a perfumer and try combining the scent families. Louise Bloor makes bespoke fragrances to order and can explain how perfumers blend smells, as well as help unlock some of the mystery about how scent works.
“It’s actually a controversial question – there are various ideas but nobody really knows” Louise admits. “While it’s unknown how the nose processes smells, we do know the brain deals with smell differently to the other senses. Smell goes straight to your cortex, which means our response to it is very instinctive – it’s not something we analyse. And it often is emotional or brings back memories.”
“I associate scent with different styles, for example Vanilla is soft and child-like, whereas Bergamot or Clary Sage are clean and crisp. The fashion at the moment is definitely for clean and citrusy scents.”
Perfumers talk about scent in terms of ‘notes’ or ‘chords’, and a blended perfume will usually be a mix of a head chord, a heart chord and a bass chord. “When I’m mixing a perfume I always start with the bass – something like Vetiver, Frankincense or Pine, which all have a ‘green’ fresh smell” explains Louise. “The heart note might be something citrusy and sweet, like May Chang or Laurel, and the head note might be Bergamot, Lime and Blood Orange.”
Perfumed planting projects
Tara Maloney recommends a website called Base Notes, which lists the ingredients of over 11,000 perfumes and can be used for planting ideas. The projects below are some she suggests, one of which recreates one of the world’s most famous fragrances.
Chanel 5 container: combine a woody base note like Dianthus (which has a spicy clove smell) with a Jasmine heart note. The Jasmine could be trained onto a tripod in the centre of the pot, with the Dianthus underneath. The perfume’s tropical top note is a little more difficult – Ylang Ylang and/or Neroli – but both would survive outside in summer or in a conservatory.
Choc-mint pot: combine Chocolate Cosmos, which has pretty brown flowers, with Chocolate Mint and Peppermint to create something that smells like a sweet shop.
Fruit punch bowl: combine Pineapple Broom with an apple-scented modern shrub rose, Blackcurrant Sage, Lemon Verbena and Dianthus to create something that smells rather like a glass of Pimms.
Fragrant window box: try combining spicy pink Dianthus with floral Lavender and fresh smelling Bergamot.
Cut flowers / houseplants: sweet peas are perfect cut-and-come-again blooms for perfuming your home – the more you pick, the more flowers will appear. Tara also suggests picking flowers from shrubs – two or three blooms from the Virburnum Burkwoodii ‘Anne Russell’ will fill a room with fragrance. A favourite houseplant of Stephen Lacey is the Stephanotis, which has a clean and tropical scent. He also recommends indoor Jasmine but warns that some find the scent to be quite animal-like.
- Go on a scent gardening course – Tara Maloney is leading a workshop all about using perfumed plants in your garden at Petersham Nurseries on 29th May, from 11am – 12.30pm. Tickets cost £25 and can be booked via 0208 940 5230 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Louise Bloor runs a regular Fragrant Supper Club – contact her at email@example.com to be put on the mailing list.
- Seek out rose gardens for a powerful hit of heady perfume this summer – Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London both have delicious examples.
- Alderley Grange in Gloucestershire features a scent garden designed by Vita Sackville West and is open by appointment this June.
- The Oxford Botanic Garden has a secret spring scent garden that is tucked away but a treat for your nose.
- Scent in Your Garden – Stephen Lacey
- The Scent of Flowers and Leaves: It’s Purpose and Relation to Man – FA Hampton