Even the most unassuming shrub can overwhelm you with its fragrance. Here’s our pick of the bunch.
From scents of myrrh to nutmeg and vanilla, fragrant shrubs are a breath of fresh air. Plant them where you’ll benefit most. For example, standardised plants along paths are an ideal height for you to take in their aroma.
Glance underneath the small box-like leaves of a low, evergreen sarcococca hedge, and you will discover white, sweetly scented tassels. Also known as sweet box, it fills the winter air with a powerful smell. Witch hazels (Hamamelis) are a more showy shrub, producing tassels of flowers in harlequin colours of orange, red and yellow, and sweet, spicy fragrance, also in winter. These are woodland-edge shrubs, while the Cornelian cherry ( Cornus mas), is best placed where winter sun can illuminate its delicate lemony flowers. If you want to fill a shady side passage with scent, choose Daphne odora. The usual variety you see is 'Leucanthe' in pale pink, or 'Aureomarginata', which has a yellow variegation around its leaf and pinky flowers. White Daphne odora 'Alba' shines out even more.
Evergreen skimmias, with their fibrous, shallow roots, are an ideal scented plant that can be bedded out under the shade of a tree during summer and then dug up and planted as a centrepiece in a container, adding a whiff of spring long before daffodils and tulips have got their heads out of the ground.
Another showy scented flower in milder gardens are the luculias, which are at their best in autumn to early winter. Luculias do well in dappled shade with good drainage and well-mulched roots. Heavy pruning will keep them bushy.
HEAVEN SCENT ROSES
David Austin was well aware of the importance of scent when he began breeding his English roses back in the 1960s. His early roses had a scent he called myrrh. 'Leander' is one – it smells like incense with a dash of honey and lemongrass. David's more recent varieties have the traditional, heady old rose fragrance – like 'Gertrude Jekyll'. The big, pink rosette flowers are so fragrant they have been used as an ingredient in perfume. 'Munstead Wood', another fragrant David Austin, has deep crimson petals. As well, the Damask family of roses are famous for their perfume. We can still buy the ancient pink Rosa x damascena var. trigintipetala, more often listed as 'Kazanlik', and the Damask rose 'Madame Hardy' has a perfume to die for. The Alba family is highly fragrant too, a favourite being the milk-white 'Alba Semiplena'. Others include the Bourbon rose 'Souvenir de la Malmaison', with its large, powderpink, many-petalled, quartered blooms, and the tough Rugosas that thrive in shade or sandy shore. Try 'Hansa', 'Roseraie de l'hay' and 'Blanc Double de Coubert'.
Viburnum's showy, often fragrant flowers make perfect specimens for both vase and bouquet. The deciduous forms are at the top of the list for sheer spring beauty and ease of growth, and several varieties are notable for an aroma that can perfume an entire garden. Viburnum x burkwoodii (pictured left) is one. Even if you're looking the other way, it beckons with such a beguiling sweet scent that it's hard to stop inhaling.
Viburnum x carlcephalum emits a spicy scent as does the Korean spice viburnum, Viburnum carlesii.
There are myriad other deciduous viburnums to choose for their fragrance, starting with the early bloomers like the pink-flowered Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn', which flowers from autumn through to spring, and the pink-tinged white Viburnum farreri, which flowers from mid or late winter.
Viburnum japonicum and Viburnum odoratissimum are both evergreen forms with fragrant, small white flowers.
Viburnums are easy to grow. They cope with sun, partial shade, clay soil and dry summers. The deciduous varieties are cold hardy; evergreen varieties need protection from winter winds. Viburnum are a good addition to the shrub border, or position them close to paths to enjoy their fragrance as you walk by.
Most modern lilac hybrids are descended from Syringa vulgaris, comprising a genus of deciduous shrubs with heart-shaped leaves and heavy trusses of four-petalled tubular flowers. They are mostly cold climate plants that often grow but do not flower well in warmer areas. Regions that experience warm winters and high humidity can have problems with fungal disorders. These are always sweetly and distinctively fragrant, particularly after rain. Lilac lovers in hotter and humid areas can choose from several candidates, including the Persian Syringa x persica, Chinese Syringa reflexa and Syringa meyeri 'Palibiniana' (syn 'Palibin'). Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla thrives at Eastwoodhill in Gisborne. Syringa x josiflexa 'Bellicent' has generous sprays of delicate pink but hates summer drought.
SPRING ON SHOW
Bring spring indoors with a vase full of fragrant bulbs. Some of the most vase-worthy subjects are daffodils, tulips and grape hyacinths. However, if you include daffodils in the mix, you'll need to condition them first. The white sap that exudes from daffodil stems is toxic to other flowers; it will clog their stems and prevent them from taking up water. To condition, place cut daffodils in a vase with 3cm of cool water. Add sugar if you like, or floral preserve. After a few hours the daffodils should have slurped up all the water. Rinse the vase and add more fresh water. After 6-8 hours, you can then place your daffodils in a vase with other flowers. Change the water daily.