The best frangrant plants, shrubs & aromatic herbs

Val Bourne / 24 September 2013

How to decide on the best year-round fragrant plants and shrubs for your garden.



Every garden needs fragrance and it needn’t be a summer sensation either. There are fragrant plants for every season and that includes winter. However you’ll only pick up a waft of fragrance if you site your plants in sheltered, warm locations. 

A cold corner is not normally warm enough to encourage strong scent. Try to place your plants close to paths, seating areas and gates, or where two paths meet. And then inhale.

Summer is the easiest season and phloxes, peonies and roses are among the best. The rich-tea fragrance of the clear-pink Bourbon rose, ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’, is acknowledged as the most scented of all by most rosarians. 

The Hybrid Musk ‘Buff Beauty’, a soft-apricot shrub rose, is another. However most roses have some fragrance.  Add the ragged white Dianthus ‘Mrs Sinkins’, a long-lived pink with clove-scented flowers that come into their own in the evening. 

Try to plant an English honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, too. This enjoys shade at the roots, but climbs towards the sun and the rhubarb-and-custard flowers tone well with roses.  Pots of oriental lilies in pastel colours, such as the maroon-spotted pink ‘Stargazer’ and the all-pink ‘Soldera’ are a manageable height for a pot. Don’t go for the tall ones (roughly 3ft).

Fragrant plants in containers

Scented-leaved pelargoniums planted in a sunny situation will exude a whole range of smells from the lemon ‘Radula’, to the rose ‘Attar of Roses’, ‘Orange Fizz’ and ‘Chocolate Peppermint’. Add a purple heliotrope for extra cherry fragrance and to add a dash of colour to the leafy tapestry.

Sweet Peas can either be grown in the garden or in a container. A tripod is always more fragrant than a row. The pink and white ‘Gwendoline’ is one of the easier sweet peas to grow, or try the pale-blue ‘Charlie’s Angel’, or the frilly white ‘Jilly’. Sow seeds under glass in February, using deep pots or rootrainers, or buy plants in April.

Ginger lilies can also be fragrant and Hedychium densiflorum ‘Devon Cream’ (syn ‘Great Dixter’) has extravagantly scented pale-yellow flowers that develop more fragrance as the light falls. These are easy to keep in a pot in a frost-free greenhouse.

Fragrant shrubby plant

The honey-scented flowers of the buddleja make a good addition and Buddleja davidii ‘Pink Delight’ is a silver-leaved, bright-pink that wafts warm honey over a wide area. It is a large shrub however, reaching over six feet in height and spread.

Philadelphus, or Mick Orange, has white flowers with a citrus scent. Varieties vary from the lanky to the dwarf ‘Manteau d’Ermine’. The best two in the garden reach fft (up to 2m) and have a slight, darker blotch to their white flowers. ‘Belle Etoile’ has large white flowers faintly smudged in maroon and the similar ‘Beauclerk’ has a cerise eye. 

Both go very well with pink, maroon or red roses, due to their smudges of colour. The golden-leaved Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ must be grown in shade to avoid leaf scorch, lighting up a dark area.  Cut out some of the old wood after flowering, roughly a third a year

The twining, white-flowered summer-flowering Jasminium officinale is not hardy enough for many when grown outside. However it makes an excellent plant for a not-too-sunny conservatory and it has an exceptionally heady scent.  

Aromatic herbs

Certain plants have aromatic foliage and in hot sunny conditions they exude fragrant oils. Lavender is one of the most restful and you could plant a lavender hedge using hardy English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). The best hedging varieties are slow-growing and the purple-flowered ‘Hidcote’ and the mid-blue ‘Loddon Blue’ are both excellent. Hardy lavenders are trimmed in late-August and cut back into the old wood.

If you want a specimen lavender opt for a lavendin (Lavandula x intermedia) instead. These later-flowering lavenders have long stems topped by slender tapering flowers and they tend to be at their best in July and August.  The new variety ‘Fragrant Memories’, a vision of pale-mauve flower and silvery foliage, will billow out to make  large sphere. ‘Grosso’ has tight-purple flowers that splay out above bright-green foliage and this is the lavender grown in fields in France for its sharp, aromatic oil. Lavendins are less hardy than English lavenders and they should be lightly trimmed in late-September.

Other herbs can be equally fragrant. They include mints, thymes, rosemary, tarragon and the aptly-named curry plant (Helichrysum italicum). So a herb bed in full sun could excite the senses as well as stocking your kitchen.

Related: how to grow herbs.

Autumn and winter fragrance

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ will waft its strong hyacinth scent through the garden when it begins to flower in November, when little else is about. It will then flower on in snatches whenever the weather is clement.  Lots of spring-flowering viburnums are fragrant including V. x juddii, V. carlesii and V. x burkwoodii. These could cast light shade over spring bulbs and woodlander.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is a an evergreen daphne which produces heady pale-pink clusters of flower in early January, forming a columnar upright bush. It can be cut back in hard winters, but often reshoots. Try to offer it overhead protection under the edge of a leafy canopy.  The later-flowering D. odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is tougher, but it will not flower until April in most years. Both can be damaged by heavy snowfall, so knock off any snow as soon as you can.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) are also fragrant, but some smell of lavatory cleaner, whilst others are freesia-scented. The best two for a sweet scent are the butterscotch ‘Aurora’ and the light-yellow ‘Pallida’. Witch hazels need fertile soil and an open site to ripen the flowering wood. They also like summer moisture, so if the leaves drop to vertical in a hot spell, water them well.

Christmas box, or sarcococca, are also very fragrant and they make small evergreen shrubs that fit wonderfully well into containers. The most fragrant of all is the pink-flowered S. hookeriana var. digyna. However the best green foliage belongs to S. confusa, an elegant cream-flowered form. These are both readily available in garden centres during winter.

Hyacinths are also easy to pick up as bulbs or in potfuls, but fragrance varies greatly. The multi-spiked ‘multiflora’  hyacinths are the most fragrant. Deep-blues also tend to be fragrant, but generally the pinks are less so.  Go for untreated bulbs: these will flower outside in March. They are very useful in containers close to the door.

Related: scented plants for autumn and winter

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