The delicious scent of lilac lures visitors into my northern California yard each spring. My tree - dug out of a neighbor's yard where it had come up on its own more than 20 years ago - is old and battered, its trunks riddled with woodpecker holes. Every year I tell myself I'm going to cut it down and replace it with a fancier hybrid lilac.
Then spring rolls around and the flowers, even though they are small and last only a couple of weeks, permeate the air with the most heavenly aroma. All thoughts of removing it vanish.
When I visit other gardens, I notice the absence of strong scents. In contrast, my garden - by design - is alive year-round with fragrance - both in flower and in leaf.
Having a fragrant garden doesn't mean fussing with unusual or picky plants. In my yard, take a seat to admire the lilac and you'll probably brush against a scented-leaf geranium called Mabel Gray, which is growing alongside the bench. Rubbing the leaves of the geranium releases a lemony smell so powerful it almost makes your eyes water.
Round a corner of the next path and the sprawling stems of another scented geranium grab your legs and perfume the air with the heady bouquet of peppermint. Or come by on a hot summer evening, when the soft resiny aroma of Cistus ladanifer (crimson spot rockrose) makes you feel as if you could reach out and touch it.
Yet as delightful as these scented plants are, let's face it: Gardens are created to be seen, so many gardeners ignore the dimension of scent in favor of flowers that are showy.
Still, certain fragrances are so evocative they transport us to forgotten times and faraway places.
For years, though, a common complaint has been that modern flowers have no scent. In their quest for bigger flowers, brighter colors, or longer bloom periods, hybridizers have let fragrance fall by the wayside. We now can grow some daylilies, roses, cottage pinks, snapdragons, and sweet peas - all formerly known as fragrant - that are still beautiful but scentless.
But now fragrance is back in vogue. One example: English rosarian David Austin has been developing modern roses that look and smell like old-fashioned ones. And new cottage pinks again have that trademark spicy scent.
Take a close look and you'll find that the palette of plants with scented foliage, flowers, or bark is almost endless, and there are fragrant choices to fit any garden in any climate.
Some plants are "fast" with their fragrance; that is, they do not release it unless rubbed or crushed. Plant these along a walkway or path so you can rub their leaves as you go by. Think rosemary, scented geraniums, and lemon verbena.
Other fragrances waft throughout the garden, daring you to come closer and look. Jasmine, gardenia, wintersweet, and mock orange are good choices in my part of the country.
Of course, not all plants are pleasantly fragrant, and what appeals to one gardener may disgust another. Many plants with scented leaves have an unpleasant odor that will repel browsing animals. Others have an aroma that will attract pollinating insects.
The list at left offers a sampling of fragrant annuals, bulbs, herbs, perennials, and shrubs. As you talk with other gardeners and with workers at a good nursery, you'll discover others. "This is only a peep through the door of the scented garden," as English gardener and author Rosemary Verey wrote more than 20 years ago in "The Scented Garden."
"You must walk there yourself to discover its wealth, not only of scents, but of all the pleasures and associations that go with them," she continued. "Scents evoke memory, arouse our emotions, cause us to pause and wonder at the good things which are there if only we look."
Watch a person approach a rosebush in full bloom. The first thing he or she does is bend over to sniff a flower. The roses may be pretty, but the crowning glory is an appealing fragrance. Here are other fragrant plants for the garden:
Annuals: Angel trumpet,four-o'clock, heliotrope, nasturtium, nicotiana, petunia (older types, mostly in evening), primrose, stock, sweet alyssum, viola.
Bulbs: Hyacinth, iris, lily, narcissus (including daffodils).
Herbs: Most herbs are fragrant, but some of the most aromatic are basil, bay, catmint, chamomile, lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, scented geranium, and thyme.
Perennials: Astilbe, dianthus, lily-of-the-valley, peony (some varieties), phlox, Russian sage, Sedum spectabile.
Shrubs: Azaleas (native, deciduous), butterfly bush, daphne, lilac, mock orange, osmanthus, rose, winter daphne, viburnum (some), witch hazel.
Vines: Clematis (some), climbing rose, honeysuckle, jasmine, moonflower, sweet pea, wisteria.