Jane Moore picks her favourite fragrant shrubs and explains why scented plants are an integral part of any green space
In the whole panoply of garden flora available, there has to be a spot for a fragrant plant or two in any garden. I’m a huge fan of scented plants – what’s not to like about miscellaneous scents as you wander about the garden, after all? Small, tall, shrub or climber, there is a scented plant to suit your space, however titchy it may be.
But perhaps it’s the seasons that matter the most. Scent is synonymous with those languid summer days of roses and herbs and freshly cut grass. In spring, fragrance is part of that zinging promise in the very air of the season to come. But it’s a handful of scented plants that really get me through the winter months. And I’m not the only one – the big old bumble bees rely on scent in winter to draw them to the flowering plants as there are so few things flowering in the depths of winter. So perhaps that’s where we should start.
I’ve had burly delivery drivers stop me to ask what they can smell in the car park at The Bath Priory – and no, it’s not the bins. Instead it’s a couple of Sarcococca confusa bushes scenting the whole area with their tiny vanilla-fragranced flowers. Commonly called Christmas box, for the obvious reason that it flowers in late December and January, often continuing into February, it’s an evergreen stalwart that sits sturdily all summer long, biding its time for a long moment of glory in the winter. It’s a great plant to have near a door or front gate where you can keep it clipped into a nice, box ball shape, and it’s lovely to cut for flower arranging too.
Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is one of the first plants I fell in love with back in my college days. It’s a super-flowering shrub with clusters of little pink flowers produced in winter on bare twigs which looks delightful – and it’s showier than you might imagine.
You do need to allow it a corner of its own as it does turn into a thicket of stems, although you can prune it hard and thin out the older wood to keep it in its place. It has nice foliage through summer and gets some good autumn tints too, so it isn’t just a one-trick pony either.
For sophistication, elegance and happiness in light shade look no further than Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’. Fabulously fragrant with dainty pink flowers, she will set you back a few pounds as daphnes are always pricey, but oh so worth it. Tall and spare with the flowers produced at a handy nose height, place her near a path or in a sheltered spot to see her at her best.
I could not write a feature about scent without including lilacs. Be aware that you need some space and that they’re notorious for suckering and dying back, but a lilac is a joyous plant to own provided you keep it well-pruned and within bounds. My favourites are the white Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’ and deep purple S. v. ‘Charles Joly’.
There are few plants as downright useful and attractive as the Mexican orange blossom or Choisya ternata, and that is without factoring in the fabulously fragrant foliage and flowers. Evergreen trifoliate leaves, a vigorous bushy growth habit and an ability to thrive even after pruning make this versatile shrub a surefire winner. Top that with its large fragrant mops of white flowers in late spring and early summer and it’s an easy-to-grow plant with a lot of potential for the average garden. While my favourite variety is Choisya ternata, for a small garden I would pick Choisya × dewitteana ‘White Dazzler’ with its dainty, slim leaves and smaller growth habit.
Many viburnum varieties also flower fabulously in spring and quite a few have heady scent to go with those blooms. One I rate is the unromantically named Viburnum × burkwoodii ‘Park Farm Hybrid’, a real toughie with a vigorous growth habit and lots of sweetly scented spring flowers. For smaller gardens its parent Viburnum carlesii is a daintier, less rambunctious option, as is Viburnum juddii.
My other half is not a big fan of roses – “nasty, spiky things” – but even he agrees that there are few things that smell as wonderful as a really fragrant rose. I’m a huge fan of the David Austin repeat-flowering roses, both as shrubs and climbers, and I’m not alone. Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ regularly comes out as top rose in gardening magazine polls and, if you only have the room or inclination for one rose, it is a goodie.
Hard on the heels of roses comes the mock orange or philadelphus. It may be a one-hit wonder with a brief flowering time in June but, oh, it’s a belter. Those pure white flowers pack a fragrance so strong that it will literally stop you dead as you sniff the air, like Pooh bear catching a waft of honey. It’s incredibly easy to grow and loves a sunny spot. My favourite varieties are the singles such as Philadelphius ‘Belle Etoile’ and the lime-green leaved P. ‘Aureus’.
My final choice for summer lies somewhere between a shrub and a herbaceous plant and looks good treated in either way. The Russian sage or Perovskia atriplicifolia was my stand-out plant in last summer’s drought and it performed brilliantly throughout August and September with masses of dusky blue flowers topping its aromatic felted grey foliage. The bees absolutely loved it – and so did I.
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener