Neil Sperry

Scent-sational plants: These are some of my favorite fragrant plants from the garden

A great garden in a small space

Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.
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Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.

Fragrances are funny things. What appeals to one person may not to the next. As a guy who’s given up on buying perfume for his wife (gift cards are safer), I’m almost hesitant to offer a list of my favorite fragrant plants from our garden. But fear won’t strike me down. I’ll venture forth with my list. I’ll start with the fall bloomers and work through the seasons.

Elaeagnus

I might as well start with my favorite. It has the ugliest flowers with the most heavenly smell. Fact is, you have to search just to find the blooms hidden beneath the gray/green leaves, but you can smell them from 100 feet away. It blooms in mid-fall, and the flowers are followed by small red fruit that birds like in the spring. It’s a great shrub that grows to 5 or 6 feet tall and 6 or 7 feet wide.

Loquat

I love this small evergreen tree (to 15 ft. tall and wide) with the huge, tropical leaves. Unfortunately, our landscape is slightly too cold for it to survive the winters reliably. Still, you see them within the urban heat pockets of Fort Worth and the suburbs. It blooms in fall, but you may not even notice the flowers, that is, until you smell them. They’re delightful, and they’re followed by plum-like fruit that make delicious jelly once they mature in the spring (assuming they aren’t frozen over the winter). I hope you have a spot where this plant could thrive in your garden. If you do, it and you will be happy together.

Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans)

Its small flowers aren’t showy, but their fragrance fills the entire garden. It’s a deep green, evergreen shrub to 6 or 7 feet tall, although I don’t grow it because our gardens are too cold in the winter. But you do see (and smell) it in protected spots in Fort Worth/Dallas landscapes.

Pansies and violas

They’re the best-selling annual flowers in Texas year-in and year-out. That’s because they’re dependable and colorful. The fact that they’re fabulously fragrant doesn’t hurt them a bit. They have the same rich aroma as their sisters, sweet violets, in the perennial gardens. However, they put out much more of it and for many months longer. Grow them in full sun, in rich, well-prepared garden soil.

Pinks

If clove is your fragrance, these little flowers will send you into ecstasy. They’re sisters to carnations, but they can be grown in outdoor beds – here in Texas no less! They’re as cold hardy as pansies, and their blooms come in all combinations of red, pink, lavender and white. They grow to 10 to 12 inches tall and wide, and they bloom all winter and well into the spring.

Mexican plum

I’m in love with this little tree. It’s native locally, growing to 15 or 20 feet tall and wide. It’s coarse-textured for an interesting look, and it bears fruit each fall that makes wonderful jelly. Its white flowers in the spring persist for a couple of weeks, and during that time they fill the air with sweet smells that I really love. And my wife does not. Which takes me back to my opening paragraph. You just really never can tell. And to think I planted it right where she parks so she could smell it each time she got out to walk into the house. It was such a good plan at the time.

Carolina jessamine

This was a really popular vine 20 or 25 years ago, but tastes changed and people moved on. Still, it’s time to revisit it, because it’s a refined grower that prefers shade and that has lovely spring blooms that are deliciously fragrant. What’s not to love about all of that! Use it to cover arbors or fences where you want a vine that won’t overtake all that grows near it. It may eventually play out when its roots reach the white caliche bedrock below, but in the meantime you’ll have many years of faithful growth.

Wisteria

This vine, by comparison, grows like a horse. It gets big, and it needs support to match. It can show iron deficiency in our alkaline clay soils, but we still love to grow it for its fragrant lavender or white flower clusters each spring. Just give it 30 or 40 feet of space in which to grow.

Texas mountain laurel

Native to the Texas Hill Country, where late March must smell just divine, this is an evergreen shrub that grows to 10 or 12 feet tall and 8 or 9 feet wide (bigger farther south). Its flower clusters have the sweet fragrance of grape soda. Plant it on a well-draining site. Protection from extremely cold winds is also advisable.

Star jasmine

Also known as “Confederate jasmine,” this is another plant that I refer to as having “my favorite fragrance.” It’s a vine that’s a sister to Asian jasmine groundcover. However, unlike its low-growing sibling, star jasmine covers itself with pinwheel-shaped white flowers each spring. Their fragrance is beyond description. However, the plant is just not reliably winter-hardy in the Metroplex. You’ll see it as far north as College Station and Austin, but in our area it has to be grown in pots and brought into a greenhouse or sunroom. My plant is on a stout trellis, and it’s been moved in and out of my greenhouse for 20 years or longer. I love this plant!

So that’s my list, albeit partial. I had to drop off hyacinths, honeysuckle, nicotiana, gardenia, moonvine and moonflower – and others I didn’t even think of. Too much fragrance. Too little space.

Neil Sperry hosts“Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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