Plants for Seasons of Fragrance

Casa Blanca Lily in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fragrant Casa Blanca Lily (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Ornamental gardens are traditionally designed for visual impact; vivacious blossoms are chosen to display a bold array of colors while shapely shrubs and grasses enhance the landscape with complementary hues and textures. But there is an unseen aspect to the garden that can be as alluring as the view itself, like the enchanting song of a siren luring you closer to the source. In a word: fragrance.

A luscious bourbon rose in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A luscious heirloom rose (Photo by: Kathy Diemer)

In 40BC, Cleopatra used sweetly scented rose petals to lure Mark Anthony to her bedchamber, and today our 21st century markets have followed suit with fragrant hygiene products and unique perfumes, all created to give us our own signature scent. People identify with fragrance, it has the power to soothe, entice or invigorate (think Aromatherapy) yet, it can also transport you in time. Think back to the fresh baked aroma of your grandmother’s apple pie or the first whiff of lilac blossoms in spring. Helen Keller said it best: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived”.

The fragrant fringes of Witch Hazel in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The fragrant fringes of Witch Hazel (Photo: Kathy Diemer)

Here in zone 5 New England, we are fortunate to have many options for adding fragrance to our gardens. In December we can enjoy the sweetly scented fringe of American Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, followed by Ozark Witch Hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, which offers profuse flowers in February and March. Witch hazels are lovely, low care  shrubs that thrive in zones 4 – 8, slowly growing over 10 feet tall in sunny locations.

Hyacinth 'Pink Pearl' with red twig dogwood in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Hyacinth ‘Pink Pearl’ with red twig dogwood (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The witch hazels are a perfect launch into April, when the barn door of fragrance is flung wide open with the arrival of spring blooming bulbs and shrubs. Sweetly scented Hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis, are perennial bulbs that are best planted in clusters and offer colors from pastel to intense shades of blue and fuchsia. Another heirloom bulb, the Daffodil, Narcissus, also comes in a vast array of colors and sizes, and different varieties bloom from April to the end of May. While many daffodils have fragrance, my personal favorites are the Jonquil, Narcissus jonquilla, which offer a more intense, spicy perfume. Both daffodils and hyacinths are hardy, long lived bulbs resistant to pests.

The flower of Magnolia stellata in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The flower of Magnolia stellata (Photo: Kathy Diemer)

The earliest small tree to blossom in my garden is Magnolia stellata, a most cherished early bloomer, and one of the first trees we planted on our property over twenty years ago.  One of spring’s most enchanting fragrances, the multi-petaled, whitish-pink 4″ blossoms blanket the tree in early April, and emit a wonderful scent that gently embraces you and invites you for a closer sniff. Magnolia stellata is perfect for the smaller landscape, as it tops out between 15 to 20′ tall by 10 to 15′ wide, in zones 4-8 with full sun and moist soil. If you want to extend the magnolia season, add the native Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, which produces lemony scented flowers in late June, followed by showy clusters of red berries that the birds adore.

Viburnum Carlesii in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fragrant Viburnum Carlesii Blossoms (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

There probably isn’t a more incredible scent in the late April garden than that of Korean Spice Viburnum, Viburnum carlesii, which grows to about six feet tall and wide, and it’s slightly larger cousin Burkwood Viburnum, Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk’, that tops out at ten feet tall and wide. Both produce intoxicatingly fragrant clusters of pinkish-white flowers in spring, berries for our feathered friends in summer and burgundy foliage in fall. Carlesii and Burkwoodii would prefer moister soil, but can tolerate dry spells once established.  Mine are in full sun, but they will accept some shade as well.  Each of these jewels possess a lush green foliage in summer, and the shrub form is complementary to neighboring plantings in the border.

Common Syringa vulgaris in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Common Syringa vulgaris (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

May wouldn’t be May without the fragrant lavender blooms of heirloom lilacs. Nothing compares to the beauty and perfume of the syringa family, and there are so many sizes and colors to choose from that no one needs to miss the opportunity to have at least one delicious specimen nearby. Planting a lilac is like planting a piece of history, and with care and pruning, you can expect your lilac (tree) to surpass your lifetime as well. For smaller spaces, or to extend the lilac season, there are a few petite lilacs such as Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’, which has lavender blooms and is capable of growing up to 8′ tall and wide, and Tinkerbelle lilac, Syringa ‘Bailbelle’, with buds the shade of wine, opening to a very rich pink.  Both have intensely scented flowers that appear just as the tree lilac’s last fragrant petals fall, and with adequate rainfall, my ‘Miss Kim’ reblooms with a second flush of delightfully aromatic clusters in summer.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Sarah Bernhardt' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ adorns the walkway (photo: Kathy Diemer)

If I had to pick a “top-ten” fragrant-favorite, that is after you held me down and twisted my arm, one of the chosen few would surely include herbaceous peonies. Not only are they stunningly beautiful, herbaceous peonies will thrive in almost any garden in zones 3-7 with a minimum of six hours of sunshine and moist, well drained soil. Paeonia lactiflora, a phenomenal cut flower, blooms late May through June in gorgeous shades of pink, crimson red, white and yellow, with a variety of flower types to suit your taste. Peonies are long lived souls (many over 100 years) that don’t require dividing unless you want to expand the brood.

Fringe Tree with Hemlock Neighbor in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fringe Tree with Hemlock Neighbor (photo: Kathy Diemer)

By June, the American Fringe Tree, Chionanthus virginicus, is flaunting its honeysuckle scented clusters of shredded coconut-like flowers that flutter gently in the breeze. Appearing by mid-June, the ethereal blossoms gently dangle from each branch like silken threads, creating the illusion of something light and airy floating on your landscape.  Chionanthus is derived from the Greek word meaning snow flower, but this small tree (up to 20’) is incredibly durable and drought tolerant once established. Another scent-sational, June flowering shrub is Mock Orange, Philadelphus x virginalis, (zone 5-8), which produces masses of double white flowers while remaining a moderate 5 foot shrub. For anyone that has ever visited an orange grove, Mock Orange offers the same not-to-be-missed citrus scented blossoms and only requires annual pruning to keep it looking lush.

Incredibly fragrant Rosa 'Louise Odier' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Incredibly fragrant Rosa ‘Louise Odier’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For flowers that will continue the fragrant theme throughout the summer and into fall, I call on my heirloom roses, Oriental lilies and phlox to keep the garden rocking its sweetest scents. Heirloom roses are reliably fragrant, disease resistant and extremely durable. A long time member of my garden is Louise Odier, an 1851 antique bourbon with the sweetest perfume imaginable, packaged within a gorgeous pink flower. With adequate rain, Louise blooms from May through October, no chemicals required. The most aromatic of lilies are the Orientals, and I would never be without the much beloved pink Lilium ‘Stargazer’ and white Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’, although they need to be protected from browsing visitors. And talk about rocking it, a plant guaranteed to “knock your socks off” with color and sweet scent is none other than Phlox paniculata, a dependable bloomer that will provide flowers from July through September, with a plethora of blossom colors and options. Try the very popular Phlox paniculata ‘David’, a mildew resistant cultivar with luminous clusters of pearly white flowers.

The gorgeous flower of Philadelphus virginalis in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The gorgeous flower of Philadelphus virginalis (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

All of the plants, shrubs and trees recommended are long lived members of my garden, and I hope some will become treasured members of your garden in the near future. Happy planting . . . may the scent be with you ♥


  1. Beautiful job showing the fragrant flowers that not only last all season, but for many years!

    • So glad you enjoyed the suggestions, Patty! Fragrance is one of my favorite parts of the garden and I love sharing the plants I’ve had the most success with. Thanks for writing, I always enjoy hearing from my readers ~

  2. I have been planting an entire area of fragrance near our garden swing-Many of the plants that you list.
    Totally pleasurable as each plant or bush blooms successively and provides us with heavenly fragrance as we watch the birds, insects and butterflies do their thing.

    • Thanks for your comments, Gloria. I have always gardened with fragrance in mind, and over time have come up with quite a list of plants I wouldn’t want to live without! I love hearing from my readers, and knowing that I have helped or inspired in some way means so much to me.

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