A rose is a rose is a roseuntil it withers and dies, losing its beguiling scent forever. But savvy landscape designers know they can count on year-round fragrance if they pack their gardens with aromatic foliage. Long after the blooming season ends, the scented leaves fill the air with a distinctive perfume of their own.
"A garden without fragrance is hardly a garden at all. You might as well just get silk or plastic plants," says landscape architect Shirley Kerins, manager of plant production and sales at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.
Unlike scented flowers, though, most scented leaves must be rubbed or bruised to unlock their fragrance. For this reason, Kerins says, aromatic foliage is best placed where it will be touched. The most common locations are beside paths, where you brush against leaves as you walk past, and between pavers, where you crush leaves lightly underfoot.
Because chemical concentrations responsible for fragrance vary from plant to plant and because everyone's sense of smell is different, Kerins recommends getting a whiff of each plant before adding it to your garden. "Something that smells wonderful to one person might smell medicinal, like Vicks VapoRub, to someone else," she warns.
The list of aromatic foliage is long and tempting, so you will want to let your climate, your soil and your nose be your guides. Here are a few tried-and-true possibilities worth considering:
- Lavender: The evergreen shrub's potent purple flowers conjure up the sun-splashed South of France, but its gray to gray-green leaves also exude a pleasing scent. Lavandula augustifolia 'Hidcote' and L. intermedia 'Provence' are good choices.
- Rosemary: This Mediterranean native's dark-green needle-like leaves have been a pungent culinary ingredient for centuries. Try Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus' or a similar low-growing variety called 'Lockwood de Forest.'
- Crimson-spot rock rose: The deciduous rock rose Cistus ladanifer is known as a natural air freshener on very hot days, when you needn't handle it to release its heady scent. A good thing, too, since its dark-green leaves are sticky.
- Lemon verbena: The aroma of leggy Aloysia triphylla's narrow bright-green leaves, often used in beverages and jellies, calls to mind tangy lemons.
- Sage: Hundreds of exotic annual and perennial sages, cousins to common sage, grow throughout the world. Most bear floral spikes and gray-green foliage with a decidedly astringent fragrance. Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) and S. greggii (autumn sage) have a wild look.
- Thyme: Between stepping stones, thyme becomes a magic carpet of a ground cover. Not only do its tiny dark-green to gray-green leaves give off a sweet scent but they also cushion the feet. Look for creeping thyme and woolly thyme.
You can brew the leaves of mint into tea, or use it to garnish cold drinks.
- Mint: Nothing rivals the toothed green leaves of Mentha piperita (peppermint) and M. spicata (spearmint) when it comes to clean, bracing fragrances.
- Scented geraniums: The aroma of mouth-watering apples, pineapples, lemons and limes emanate from the velvety, sometimes variegated, lobed leaves of these shrubby perennials. Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint geranium) and P. 'Fragrans' (nutmeg geranium) are spicier alternatives.
- Breath of heaven: No plant has a more enchanting common name than coleonema. An evergreen shrub from South Africa, it sports wispy leaves with the fresh smell of myrtle.
Once you've narrowed your foliage choices, Kerins encourages planting them in creative combinations. She, for instance, cultivates pineapple sage next to coconut scented geraniums in a kind of horticultural piña colada. And who can blame her for having such fun? With so many scented leaves within easy reach, you won't mind either if you can't stop and smell the roses.