Making a Scented Garden in New Orleans

Petunias

I was 30 years old before I truly experienced the enthralling scent of a rose. Now I’d experienced hundreds of roses before that time, but it was early one morning, standing in Ruby Browning’s rose garden, that I experienced the deep and full sensuality of a rose’s perfume.
So many of our modern plants are no longer fragrant. They have been bred to be full and bushy or disease-resistant or perpetually blooming – at the sacrifice of scent.

Ruby’s roses were not long-stemmed beauties loaded with elegance and unmatched grace – they were rambling, rugged rose bushes with rather anemic-looking blooms – but the fragrance knocked my socks off.

And from that day forward, I knew that all my future gardens would always, always contain the beautiful aromas provided by scented plants.

Historical records indicate that the first scented gardens were planted more than 2,500 years ago within the enclosed courtyards of Persian palaces. These gardens were constructed primarily to provide spiritual sanctuaries: The ancient gardeners believed that the perfume of flowers was God’s breath on earth.

There is a rich luxury in the perfumes of the garden, a luxury that is within the reach of everyone. So here are a few tips on strategically adding scent to your garden.

First, you need to remember the reason the plants have scent in the first place. They use fragrance as a part of their reproductive function, attracting insects to distribute their pollen. Keeping this in mind, consider that the more fragrant the plant, the more insects it is likely to attract. If someone in your household is allergic to insect bites, you will have to locate the garden farther from your house. But if bugs do not bug you, I certainly suggest planting your scented garden close to you, maybe right beneath your bedroom window. The reflected heat from a wall or patio can intensify the odors from many plants. If possible, try planting in
an enclosed space such as a courtyard, which will allow the fragrance to collect and intensify.

A few perennial plants to consider are lilies, soapwort, creeping phlox, dianthus, sweet violets and peonies. Annuals include petunias, Dahlberg daisies and Nicotiana. And don’t forget about plants with fragrant leaves such as lavender, catmint, rosemary, Russian sage, lemon verbena and scented geraniums.

If it is at all possible, plant a sweet olive. It offers evergreen foliage and sweetly scented, delicate white flowers. The heavenly fragrance is quintessential New Orleans, full of the promise of romantic nights and sensual interludes.

Many flowers emit their fragrances in the late evening and on into the night. These are typically the night bloomers, such as the moonflower vine, the evening primrose, jasmine and the night-blooming cereus. If your night-scented garden needs a shrub, consider the mock orange. The sweet, lingering scent resembles orange blossoms. Some patience is required when choosing a mock orange shrub, however: They can take three to five years to reach mature bloom state. Nonetheless, the ethereal aroma is well worth the wait.

“Scent is the most potent and bewitching substance in the gardener’s repertory, and yet it is the most neglected and least understood,” says Stephen Lacey in his book Scent in Your Garden. “The faintest waft is sometimes enough to induce feelings of hunger or anticipation or to transport you back through time and space to a long-forgotten moment in your childhood. It can overwhelm you in an instant or simply tease you, creeping into your consciousness slowly and evaporating almost the moment it is detected. Each fragrance, whether sweet or spicy, light or heavy, comes upon you in its own way and evokes its own emotional response.”

Lacey’s Scent in Your Garden is an excellent resource as it introduces the fundamental aspects of design with fragrant plants. It’s a comprehensive catalog that describes more than 1,000 scented plants.

Helen Keller once observed that people were surprised that she could enjoy nature. It was really they, she said, who were blind, “for they have no idea how fair the flower is to the touch, nor do they appreciate its fragrance, which is the soul of the flower.”

In our everyday life, the average human draws about 23,000 breaths a day. You owe it to yourself to make some of those breaths transport you from your hectic world to the tranquil peace only the garden can provide. Breathe deep!

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