When choosing plants for their garden, people often focus first on how the plants look. Typically, they seek a pleasing shape and bright blooms and/or foliage. As gardeners grow more conscious of the need to support native wildlife, they may also consider whether the plant is a native or supports pollinators with blossoms that are full of pollen and nectar.

Fragrance, though, is often an afterthought. If it smells good when you cut flowers for an arrangement on the dining-room table, that’s a plus – but not an absolute requirement.

But gardeners who consider fragrance when planting will add a dimension to their sensual pleasure – enjoying the scent of hyacinth as they walk to their door in early spring or the aroma of lilies as they sit on the patio sipping a glass of wine after a hard day on the job.

If you like to sit outdoors after work, you will be pleased to know that many of the most fragrant plants are night bloomers. Because they will be visited by pollinators after dark – usually moths or bats – their aroma is designed to help attract these friendly creatures.

A couple of examples should be obvious from their names: evening primrose and four o’clocks. Evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, is a native biennial that can be a bit weedy (it grows in roadside ditches, among other places), but it has a heady, lemony fragrance. There are smaller, less aggressive cultivars such as “Lemon Sunset,” “Siskiyou Pink” and ‘Twilight.”

Four o’clocks – some are native to the U.S. Southwest but the most popular is from Peru – come in a variety of colors and are common in old-style cottage gardens. Their fragrance also has hints of lemon, though some say it’s closer to jasmine.


One of the glories of morning glories is their fragrance.

If you prefer to relax outdoors with your morning cup of coffee or tea, grow morning glories. Ipomoea indica, their scientific name, is a vining plant with several fragrant varieties. The most fragrant is Ipomoea alba or moonflower, which not only blooms in the morning but also all night long.

Plenty of day-blooming plants have beguiling scents, too.

You may remember that I wrote a column about peonies in June; while I don’t want to retread, I can’t write about fragrance in the garden without mentioning them again.

“Bowl of Beauty” is a common, reliable and highly fragrant peony with a long-lasting blossom. My wife, Nancy, just ordered “Bartzella,” an Itoh variety, both because I love its yellow color and it’s said to have an elegant scent. (It is great to have a personal online shopper.) Other fragrant varieties include  “Celebrity,” “Eden’s Perfume” and “Raspberry Sundae” – check the catalogs or nurseries for fragrant varieties that meet your desires.

And, a side note, peonies are perfect for fall planting.

Roses are famous for their fragrance, but you may be disappointed with low-maintenance varieties such as Knockout, Oso Easy and drift roses. Some have pleasing smells, some don’t. If fragrance is important to you, read the label or ask the professionals at the nursery before you buy.


Another wonderfully fragrant plant is monarda, or bee balm. As its name implies, it is an excellent plant for pollinators. In our garden, it is the flower where we find the most hummingbirds, too, but that could be because it is right by the main entrance to our house, so we notice the birds. Bee balm comes in several colors and grows, depending on the variety, from two to four feet tall.

Many other perennials are fragrant, ranging from the short (viola) to the tall (cimicifuga, which is just coming into bloom and looking gorgeous this year). Irises have a wonderful fragrance, and while hostas are grown mostly for their foliage, many of their blossoms are fragrant.

I mentioned hyacinths early in the column, but many fall-planted, spring-blooming bulb plants, such as daffodils and tulips, are known for their fragrances, as well.

Lilac blooms look beautiful and smell beautiful. Their scent evokes spring. Photo courtesy of McLaughlin Garden

And don’t forget the shrubs. One of the most sensual signs of spring is when we cut the lilacs in the spring for bouquets and bring their wonderful fragrance inside.

Other fragrant shrubs include Philadelphus (mock orange), Mohawk or carlesii viburnums, clethra and crabapples.

Keep in mind that flowers aren’t the only part of a plant that are fragrant. Boxwood has an intriguing aroma when you rub your hands over it. And all of the herbs, including rosemary, thyme and mint, are wonderfully aromatic, especially when you rub against them.

So when you’re selecting your next plant, think of smell as well as sight.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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