Root and Branch

Inhale some joy

Planting for scent is a recipe for curing winter blues

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

On a recent overcast morning, I found myself rummaging among roadside weeds and litter. I was hunting for bits of my car’s wing mirror, mangled by nocturnal vandals in our supposedly sleepy market town. A passer-by, hearing my muttered expletives, couldn’t resist noting that nothing of the kind happens where she lives — in Hackney. 

She did offer some advice, though. “Smell that bush, it’ll make everything better,” she said, pointing down the street to where a viburnum in full bloom was spilling over a garden wall. 

Our sense of smell is vital: it is linked to taste, choosing mates, and memory

The pop of colour would have been tonic enough, its dense clusters of flowers — pink, yes, but ranging from ballet slipper to flamingo — all the more improbable-seeming for adorning otherwise bare stems. But then I caught the scent: vanilla-drenched sweetness with a pinch of spice. It was like inhaling joy. 

There’s something special about scented plants that flourish at a time when so much of the natural world is barely stirring. The viburnum’s heady fragrance was definitely heightened by a sky so rinsed of pigment that even Farrow & Ball’s wordsmiths would have been hard-pressed to name it, and by the silence of birds sat huddled on leafless branches. 

Though it isn’t as sharp as it supposedly was at the dawn of human evolution, our sense of smell remains vital. It’s responsible for some 80 per cent of what we taste; it helps us choose mates, whether we’re aware of it or not; and because of the brain’s anatomy, it’s powerfully linked to memory. 

And yet when it comes to planting, scent is all too often an afterthought — if it’s thought of at all. On many nursery websites, it’s impossible to search for fragrance, presumably because there’s no demand. We’d sooner select for form and hue, for pest-resistance and shade tolerance. These things matter but why not also consider scent? Overlook it, and you’re depriving your garden of a powerful sensory dimension. 

It seems all the odder when you consider the popularity of fragranced products. Bin bags, highlighter pens, soft toys — you can buy them all with added perfume that’s invariably botanical in inspiration if not origin. You can even buy rose-scented loo roll, but when it comes to roses themselves, we’ll gladly splurge on an entirely scentless bunch. The Persian physician, Ibn Sina, distilled roses into aromatic oils using a heat chamber. It’s since taken more than a millennium to decode the biochemistry of the flower’s scent: chemists now know roughly 400 of the aromatic components. 

Not that any of this is for our benefit. Plants give off scent to lure pollinators and if they happen to be flies, the resulting aroma can be an acquired taste. When Amorphophallus rivieri, aka devil’s tongue, first bloomed at Kew Gardens in the mid-1800s, it was said that women were knocked out cold by its bouquet of rotting meat and fermenting veg. 

Even the most pleasant of scents can be intensely personal, which is why planting for fragrance should be approached with a degree of caution. In his book Fragrant Gardens, H. Peter Loewer quotes the Tudor herbalist, John Gerard, for whom the scent that emanates from mock orange was “too sweet, troubling and molesting the head in a strange manner”. 

Still, who can resist a lavender-lined path, honeysuckle scrambling over a fence, sun-baked Nicotiana and night scented stocks releasing their fragrance as the day begins to cool? Don’t forget wallflowers, either — tireless bloomers, their scent is far punchier than you’d guess from their sometimes spindly shape. 

You never know, its fragrance may just tame the next would-be vandal

Scented geraniums are another low-maintenance staple, conjuring up a wild variety of smelling notes from rose and peppermint to nutmeg and coconut. They also have the advantage of only truly releasing their aromatic oils when their leaves are rubbed, so won’t intrude unwanted. 

The olfactory delights of lemon balm or pineapple sage are largely still to come, but scented bulbs will shortly burst into bloom. Narcissi, native bluebells, even certain tulips — their aromas are sure to enliven the senses just as much as their paint-box petals. 

Until then, I’ve replaced my scented candle (it has hints of thyme and laurel, apparently) with a pot of indoor hyacinths. Strategically placed on a landing, their earthy green accents have me wafting up and down the stairs on a cloud of good cheer. I’m also vowing to park within sniffing distance of that viburnum. You never know, its fragrance may just tame the next would-be vandal. 

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