Marilyn Young is the Horticulture Assistant at Wave Hill.
Fragrance has been called the voice of inanimate things, and like music, a fragrant garden can touch the emotions deeply.
The revered British gardener and author William Robinson advised (in his 1883 book The English Flower Garden) that one “who makes a garden should have a heart for plants that have the gift of sweetness as well as beauty of form or colour.”
At Wave Hill, Robinson’s wisdom has been well considered. From the cold-season scents of witchhazel and wintersweet to the freshness of magnolias and spring bulbs, the gardens resonate with special and welcome fragrances. May and June are heady with the scents of lilacs, lily-of-the-valley, wisteria, peonies, roses, pinks and honeysuckle.
In the summer, the Herb Garden emits a delicious bouquet of lavender, lemon verbena, thyme, basil and pineapple sage. The Dry Garden is also full of scented plants, including salvias, artemisias and santolinas, all thriving in the summer heat. At the lower entrance to the Shade Border, Magnolia grandiflora, an evergreen tree also grown as a wall shrub on Glyndor House, has large white blooms that gently perfume the summer breezes.
Scent, technically the oxidation of essential oils, can be elusive. It can come wafting across the air, seductively as a night bloomer, or more directly when you burrow you face in a blossom. A plant’s Latin name can tip you off as to how it smells. For example, the spicy Ribes odoratum, fruity Daphne odora and sweet Lonicera fragrantissma offer delightful pleasures, but beware of the “evil” odors lurking in plants with foetidus or hircine in their name. Serissa foetida, for instance, is a stinky topiary that has been on summer display in the Flower Garden. “Nose-twisters” is the name given by Louise Beebe Wilder, in her wonderful and informative book The Fragrant Path, to flowers with a peppery note to their sweetness. Taken from Nasturtiums, an old Latin word derived from the words narsus (the nose) and tortus (twisted), “Nose-twisters” can be invigorating and refreshing, as Wilder found with the odors of marigold, calendula, chrysanthemum and tansy.
Whether pleasant or pungent, fragrant plants are a wonderful way to make a garden more enjoyable and because smell is so intimately linked with memory, ones experience of aromatic plants is often unforgettable.