Tag Archives: fragrant plants

Plant Collector: Daphne bholua

Daphne bholua - oh the fragrance

Daphne bholua – oh the fragrance

It is a rare plant that can stop you in your tracks from several metres out and have you sniffing the air to locate the source of scent. The Himalayan D. bholua is one of those plants. In our experience it is the strongest and sweetest of any of the daphnes and it has a very long flowering season because it sets buds down its stems. It is also very hardy. That is about the sum total of its merits.

As a garden plant, it becomes leggy, scruffy and untidy with age. It seeds down too freely and suckers around the place so when you think you have dug out one plant, it is just as likely that the suckers will pop up all around to confound you. It is semi deciduous. In cold conditions, it will drop all its leaves. In temperate conditions it drops some and of those it retains, only half look healthy while the other half look as if they are dying. Its natural form is upright but twiggy and untidy. Even the named cultivars we have tried are no better.

But we would not be without it. Oh, that scent. It all comes down to placement. Basically, you need to hide the plants behind something more attractive so you enjoy the scent while not expecting to admire the plant. I cut back and try and shape some of our larger plants from time to time, but it does not make a lot of difference to the overall appearance. You can never have too many fragrant daphnes in a garden and the narrow, upright habit of bholua means those plants are not going to hog too much space.

First printed in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Passing the sniff measurement test – fragrance in the garden

Magnolia Vulcan - spectacular and magnificent in flower but too far up to ever smell

Magnolia Vulcan – spectacular and magnificent in flower but too far up to ever smell

When I entered my teens, my mother gave me a book on charm. I can only recall two pieces of advice from it, though I read it time and again. One was to err on the side of restraint – that one white accessory with a little black dress may be stunning but three or four are bitsy (think Audrey Hepburn-esque style). The second was not to apply perfume before 10am. Until mid morning, the subtle scent from one’s morning bath should carry one through and to add perfume on top is heavy handed and inappropriate. Understatement was an integral part of charm in the sixties.

It was the perfume rule that had me thinking (though the merit of subtlety in accessorizing is a handy rule of thumb and not just for clothing). In years of plant retailing, I met a scary number of people – always women – who would only buy a plant if it was fragrant.

As a defining attribute, I think fragrance is over-rated and doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny. It is different in cut flowers. The wafting fragrance from a vase of flowers indoors is a delight but even then you need quite a large amount of very fragrant flowers to scent an entire room.

Seriously, apply the sniff test in the garden if you are obsessed with growing scented plants. There are not that many plants that will pass the metre sniff test – that is, able to perfume the air a metre beyond the plant and that usually requires a warm, calm day. Some daphnes will do it, as will the rare Michelia alba and proper orange blossom.

Luculia Fragrant Pearl - passing the 50cm sniff test

Luculia Fragrant Pearl – passing the 50cm sniff test

Come in a little closer and there are a range of plants which will tease you with a hint of fragrance as you pass by – philadelphus or mock orange blossom, luculia, auratum lilies, the stronger scented jonquils. But if you stop and immerse your olfactory organ (that is your nose) in the reproductive organs of the plant (that is the flower), there is a very strong perfume.

Therein lies the problem. Generally you have to stop and sniff a flower to get a true sense of its scent, or, in many cases, any scent at all. And nobody goes around their garden sniffing each and every flower every time. So the presence of perfume is often irrelevant in practice.
Some flowers are so subtly scented that you need the right conditions to get any fragrance at all. Scented camellias are of this ilk, but the public romanticism is such that merely advertising this attribute will help sales. I know.

Then there are plants where scent is related to time of day. How many people have bought the common port wine magnolia (Michelia figo) because of the promise of heady scent, only to be disappointed? The flowers are small and insignificant, the scent comes in late afternoon to night so you won’t get a whiff of anything at other times, and then the actual aroma is closer to the old Juicy Fruit chewing gum than anything else.

The bottom line is that plants have not evolved with scent to please humans. So there is no guarantee that the biggest, showiest and brightest blooms will also have the best fragrance. More often, the scent is there to attract pollinators so it is frequently linked to rather small, insignificant blooms which might otherwise pass unnoticed. There are a whole lot of scented rhododendrons and, almost without exception, they are white or pastel coloured. Bright flowers don’t need scent to attract their pollinator when they do it by colour. Night scented plants are generally pollinated by night flying insects so they don’t need to be fragrant during the day and they don’t need size and colour.

Floral scent is delightful and much appreciated. No synthetic scent can match the best natural fragrances. But those natural scents are by their very essence ephemeral. To extend their life, you have to capture the scent in oils, perfumes, pot pourri and the like. To make it mandatory that a plant be scented before you will buy it, is to elevate one characteristic beyond its merit. I regard scent as a bonus but first and foremost, a flowering plant must be interesting, attractive and appropriate to the position.

And when the next person asks me whether such and such a magnolia is scented, I may weep. We grow many magnolias here and revere them above other flowering trees. Many of ours are large now, and I can safely state that I have never stood beneath a large magnolia in flower and been amazed at the heady fragrance. Stick your nose in the flower and some are pleasantly scented, but that is pretty hard to do when the flower is five metres up the tree. Who cares when the floral display so astounding? Must the lily be gilded further with compulsory scent?

Plant Collector: Frangipani

The intoxicating fragrance of frangipani (or plumeria)

The intoxicating fragrance of frangipani (or plumeria)

Alas, these frangipani are not growing in our own garden. We were in Sydney last week where they are common in home gardens. We have two plants here which we have managed to get to a good size in pots and we plan to give them optimum conditions in the hottest possible, sheltered position at the front of the house because the fragrance is just to die for. I am sorry we don’t have the exotic rosy pink and yellow form, but only the more common white with a golden centre, more correctly known as Plumeria rubra var. acutifolia but frangipani will do just fine, thank you. There are dark red forms too.

Despite the fact that they are common in the Pacific islands and throughout Asia, frangipani originate from Central America (think Mexico, Venezuela and the Caribbean) and therein lies the problem – they are tropical but we are not. They are of the large deciduous shrub to small tree class, but very sappy plants so more akin to some of the larger euphorbias in growth. They will grow happily in pretty tough conditions as long as they never get cold or waterlogged.

What is often called the Australian frangipani is a totally different plant. It is an evergreen tree, usually very large though there are some smaller selections becoming available, and is in fact Hymenosporum flavum. Being a Queensland forest tree, it is not quite as tropical as plumeria but neither is it as exotic and attractive in bloom. We will keep to the plumeria and hope for that unmistakable scent of the tropics in summer.