How-To Ideas

Finding Fragrance in the Garden

Finding Fragrance

I met Mary because of her dog. He’s a friendly dog with a job to do. I discovered she was a gardener and the usual topics came up—plants, the weather, our soil. When Mary invited me to come to see her garden, I jumped at the chance because I hadn’t visited a garden like hers before.

Mary and her husband live on a half-acre lot in north Raleigh. Beautiful perennial borders frame green turf where her dog plays. Mature trees provide dappled shade and a swing beckons. But I couldn’t figure out the yard art until Mary took me outside for a little tour. Mary is completely blind and the art in the yard serves as guideposts. “I don’t use any type of assistance when I’m in my yard. I just tune into the sounds and feel how the earth is under my feet,” she explained.

Stone borders define her beds and strategically placed stones provide access into the beds and keep her plants safe. Looking at the stepping-stones I realized something else. There were no weeds. “I’m pretty persistent against the weeds,” she said. Then her husband revealed Mary’s secret. She gardens at night. Mary confessed her husband finds her out in her garden well after dark happily pulling weeds. “It’s cooler,” she says with a smile. She may have lost her sight, but she’s found extra time.

Wandering through Mary’s garden I was struck by something else. It smelled divine. There are the big scents that you might expect—gardenia, jasmine, tea olives, sweetspire. But some are small and you have to be still long enough to notice. The bearded iris smells of grapes and the knockout roses were sweet, but you have to wait for their scent to come to you. It’s not easy to create a scent scape. Mary explained, “I’ve noticed that more and more when I go to a nursery to try to pick out the flowers, there’s less and less fragrance with the flowers they are developing. They forfeit the fragrance.”

I turned to Dr. John Dole of NC State’s Department of Horticultural Science for a tutorial in floral fragrance. Dr. Dole’s work centers on commercial flower production and he began by explaining a flower’s scent is created by a variety of chemicals, which evaporate into the air. We may find that scent pleasing, but flowers don’t care about us. They are attracting pollinating insects to help them complete their lifecycle.

Plant breeders have to satisfy a long list in order for a plant to be successful in the marketplace. Dr. Dole used roses as an example and ticked off a long list of traits gardeners want–color, size, abundant blooms, insect, and disease resistance. Saying, “There’s just a lot we want out of a plant and fragrance is only part of it.”

An afternoon in Mary’s garden made me realize that maybe fragrance should be at the top of my list the next time I buy a plant.

Featured image by Dr. Lise Jenkins.


Dr. Lise Jenkins produces the Triangle Gardener’s radio show and podcast. She also volunteers her time as a Master Gardener in Durham.

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