Shrubs with scent awaken gardens

by Jan Spann

Humans can distinguish some ten thousand distinct smells. Complications arise, however, from the fact that many scents can alter because of age or time of day, with the season or the soil or even cultural care. What’s more, our perception of smell may change along with our moods, so what we like one day may smell awful another.

You may not realize how many garden plantings bring aroma to your garden as well as a depth of other attributes that might make one or two of these something to add to your wish list for your garden.

I’ll forego the shrubs that we most associate with fragrance, such as roses and gardenias, for others that are easy to grow, generally native to Central Arkansas and pack a pungent punch.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) has long been known as a medical marvel, used for facial blemishes as well as for swelling and bruising. Its astringent properties can soothe and heal diaper rash and shrink bags under your eyes. It’s one of those old school remedies that should be in every medicine kit. And the same can be said for its use in your landscape. In Central Arkansas, the Ozark witch hazel blooms in late winter to early spring. Plant this deciduous beauty in full sun and enjoy its orange and gold spidery frills that pop when little else offers color this time of year.

The fringe tree is in the witch hazel family, and it boasts a creamy white flower in April. Planted in sun to part shade, this showy tree (or the dwarf variety used as a shrub) needs little maintenance, and its berries attract birds while you enjoy the fall color and spring fragrance.

In addition to having edible fruit, the golden currant bush offers a delicious clove scent and is naturally found in many Arkansas counties. Kiowa Indians believed that snakes were afraid of the currant bush, so they used it as a snakebite remedy.

Other tribes used the fruits to color clay pots. This thornless variety offers small yellow flowers in spring, edible fruits and red fall foliage on a shrub that will tolerate light shade and still bloom. Planting this shrub instead of forsythia offers tasty treats that will bring birds and other wildlife to your garden. For larger spaces, allow the plant to naturalize as it spreads by suckers and forms clumps. Remove the suckers or share with friends to keep it in check.

Clethra or ruby spice summersweet lives up to its name for a delightful fragrance in its July to September bloom. Also known as sweet pepperbush, this medium-sized deciduous shrub will bloom in sun and shade and offers an alternative to azaleas to attract butterflies and birds. Naturally found in swampy woodlands and on stream banks, it grows easily and tolerates wet soil, heavy shade, and clay soil.

Osmanthus or fragrant tea olive is known for its strongly fragrant flowers, which can bloom from autumn to spring. What the flower lacks in size is compensated with a powerful apricot scent. This large evergreen shrub makes an excellent container plant or can be grown as a hedge in sun to part shade. It likes moist garden soils but is drought tolerant once established. In hot Arkansas summers, it does best with afternoon shade.

Opening during those warm winter days, wintersweet flowers are a creamy yellow with maroon stains at the base of the petal. This shrub flowers best when it receives summer sun and heat, which helps the wood to ripen. Resembling forsythia, this plant has the added bonus of a delightful aroma. Take out old canes after flowering to encourage new growth. Give it a few years to mature before flowers appear and place it where you can smell it when winter seems long and you need a hint of spring. Let patience prevail, and you won’t be disappointed.

Shade gardens pose a challenge for shrubs, which generally need sun to produce flowers. Two shrubs, sweet box and sweetshrub, fill that need. Sweetbox (Sarcococca), a compact evergreen shrub, prefers partial shade to shade and needs well drained acidic soil. Grow it in a container on your patio or let it spread as a groundcover, and you’ll be rewarded with fragrant white flowers in late winter. It spreads slowly by underground stems.

Sweetshrub or Carolina allspice (Calycanthus) does well in medium shade or sun. While the maroon flowers are insignificant, they do produce an aroma that many gardeners say smells like strawberry. It flowers on both old and new wood, so prune after the first round of flowering in late spring. Be aware that the seeds can be toxic when eaten in large quantities.

I encourage you to consider landscape shrubs that range beyond the typical planting of azalea, crape myrtle and Bufordi holly. Bringing native plants into your garden creates a more diverse landscape that balances the loss of meadowland to suburban development. Your choice of these plants attracts butterflies, birds and the insects that feed the birds. You also reap the benefit of having an interesting garden that delights your senses, in this case, scent.