Neil Sperry

What’s that great smell? These fragrant plants are coming into their prime right now

It’s fun to play games with fragrant plants in the landscape. You tuck ‘em away where folks are least likely to think about them. Heads turn, and you hear your guests mutter, “What’s that great smell?”

We have many fine options when it comes to choosing fragrant plants for our landscapes, and some of them are coming into their prime times right now. I thought this might be the right season to bring them out into full view.

Sweet autumn clematis

Sweet autumn clematis will be our first star of the fall. It’s a naturalized citizen, having been introduced and then having escaped cultivation to grow wild in the woodlands of East Texas. Unlike the weakling northern clematis hybrids, it handles our heat well. Each fall it covers itself with quarter-sized, creamy white flowers that have a sweet, delicate aroma. The plants either freeze back to the ground in cold winters, or they should be cut back to keep them from becoming leggy.


Elaeagnus is a strong-growing shrub with matte-surfaced, gray-green leaves. Mature plant size varies with type, but the range is 5 to 8 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide. Its flowers are produced in October. They are almost inconspicuous, but they are deliciously fragrant. They will perfume an entire city lot and even beyond.


Loquat is a lovely sub-tropical tree that I shouldn’t even be mentioning. It’s not dependably winter-hardy this far north, but people get by with it for 8 or 10 years between really bad winters. The plant itself is gorgeous, and those late fall flowers are sweet and unexpected. Some years even the fruit will survive winter cold snaps. Then you’ll understand why it has the common name of Japanese plum.

Pansies and violas

Pansies and violas are among the most fragrant of all our flowering annuals. Their sweet aroma gathers around doorways and patios where still air allows it to collect. For many of us, it just wouldn’t be a landscape in winter if we didn’t have these two beautiful sisters as parts of our lives. They’ll be coming into nurseries soon now. Don’t rush the planting time, though. Warm weather causes the plants to stretch, and they never seem to recover.

Annual garden pinks

Annual garden pinks are so named because their frilly petals look like they’ve been trimmed with pinking shears. Their flowers carry shades of pink, rose, lavender, red and white, often banded and usually in several rows of petals. It’s no coincidence that they resemble carnations. They’re botanically first cousins, which explains their similar clove-like fragrances. They’re almost as cold hardy as pansies, and the plants grow to be 8 or 9 inches tall and wide.

Winter honeysuckle

Winter honeysuckle is the ugliest plant that I’ll list here, but with the most all-pervasive fragrance of the bunch. Perhaps that’s because it blooms in January. You might be surprised to find out that most honeysuckles are shrubs, and this one is, too. It’s one unattractive, non-descript bush that you would absolutely never plant if it weren’t so wonderfully fragrant at a time when nothing else is. Plant it out away from your house where you won’t have to look at it. Use it on the north side of things – so that the winter breezes will carry its fragrance toward you and not down the block.


Violets are throwbacks to another era. Our grandmas grew them, but you don’t see them as much in today’s perennial plantings. But what that typically means is that they’ll probably stage a big comeback sometime soon. These are related to pansies, so you’ll sense the same fragrance, but violets are perennial plants that establish as clumps and that come back year after year. Most are deep violet-blue, but white and pink types are also sold. They grow to 5 or 6 inches tall, but their flowers are borne down with the foliage so they’re likely to go unnoticed visually. But folks won’t miss their heady aroma. You’ll soon discover why their fragrance is one of the most imitated in perfumes, candles, air fresheners and other things that need to smell sweet.

Dutch hyacinths

Dutch hyacinths are next. They bloom in late winter, assuming you’ve bought them in fall and given them the proper treatment prior to planting. Like tulips, hyacinths need at least 45 days at 45 degrees in your refrigerator to convince them that they’ve had a real winter. You plant them in the last two weeks of December, once the soil has cooled off sufficiently, and you treat them as annuals because they won’t bloom again. They’re great in pots so you can bring them indoors to perfume the house for parties. Or you can interplant them with pansies. The hyacinths typically bloom first, then as they finish, the pansies hit their full stride. It’s a terrific season of sweet smells from the garden.

So that takes us up to the spring bloomers. We’ll rejoin this topic sometime later with plants for the rest of the growing season.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.

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