Flowers and Foliage for Fragrance

With the right combination of fragrant plants, you can turn your back yard into a welcoming retreat. From herbs to perennials to flowering shrubs, these plants will energize and excite, or soothe and settle.

Your back yard is your oasis—or it should be. Whether you use it to escape from the daily grind, as a place to entertain, or as a soccer field, it should be a space where you can kick back and unwind, take a deep breath, and enjoy the benefits of your natural surroundings.

One way to make the most of your backyard garden, and the precious time you spend in it, is to choose plants for their fragrance. Ranging from subtle to nearly overpowering, sweet to tangy, floral and fresh to deep and musky, plant scents can set the mood and invigorate you or calm your nerves.

What’s most important when selecting your plants? There are many studies that indicate which types of fragrances will provide specific benefits—for example, “spicy” scents are said to be energizing—but what really matters is what you like. And think about when you use the space. If, for example, you spend more time in the yard during evening hours, look for plants that emit their fragrance later in the day.

Check out the suggestions here, and be sure to consult your local garden center professionals. They can help you select the best plants for your area—and for your personal taste.  

Flowering Shrubs

Do you remember your very first encounter with a tea rose? Probably not, but the fragrance has remained with you. Roses, of course, are among gardeners’ top choices for lending color, bloom, and scent to the garden. But when you’re planning an olfactory garden, don’t overlook these other shrubs that can liven up or soothe your mood.

Caryopteris ´ clandonensis: Willowlike, aromatic foliage provides interest for months on end; when brushed, the leaves emit a subtle fragrance. Known variously as bluebeard, blue mist or blue spirea, its fantastic blue blooms emerge in fall long after most other shrubs have dropped their flowers; this small shrub is a pollinator magnet, to boot. 

Daphne odora: The species name itself says fragrance, and daphne’s sweetly scented, early spring flowers don’t disappoint. This rounded evergreen remains rather small, and it features beautifully variegated leaves.

Hamamelis: For those who desire fragrance year-round, various witch hazel species bloom and scent the garden from late fall through winter into very early spring. Once other plants have gone to sleep, witch hazel wakes to provide unusual flowers and sweet fragrances.

Philadephus ´ virginalis: Commonly known as mock orange, Philadelphus sports abundant, richly fragrant, white flowers on sprays of arching branches. It’s a fast-growing shrub—up to 6 feet tall and wide—so give it room and allow the scent to waft.

Viburnum carlesii: Like its Viburnum relatives, Korean spice viburnum produces clusters of waxy, pinkish white flowers, but the scent of this species is capable of carrying on the slightest breeze. It’s the very essence of spring. 


So many perennials offer fragrance, it’s difficult to choose just a few—so let’s take a look at some unusual selections and revisit some that are tried-and-true.

Berlandiera lyrata: The common name, chocolate daisy, says it all: This flower looks like a daisy and smells like your favorite treat. Flowers bloom at night from late spring until frost, and the tempting aroma is most noticeable from early to mid-morning before the petals close.

Iris germanica: Old-fashioned flowers with old-fashioned scents, bearded irises—in a wide range of colors—provide a subtle, evocative, sweetly spicy fragrance that recalls childhood forays into the garden.  

Paeonia: The large, ruffled blooms of peony species emit fragrances ranging from soft and sweet to strong and spicy. The scents have been described as “citrusy” and “rosy,” as well. This is a large, mounding perennial that can stand in as a shrub.

Phlox: Both garden phlox and woodland phlox release a delicate to strong, sweet scent, but the difference is in the timing and placement. Garden phlox prefers lots of sun and blooms in late summer, while woodland phlox enjoys shade and blooms in the spring.  

Polygonatum odoratum: Solomon’s seal is a beautiful, shade-loving plant that many people overlook. Arching stems support graceful, straplike leaves—peek underneath in spring, and you’ll find small, greenish white, sweet-smelling, tubular flowers that dangle from the stems like bells.


Often it’s a plant’s foliage that provides fragrance, and few plants perform better than herbs. Because our sense of taste is so closely related to our sense of smell, cooks long ago learned to incorporate these fresh and dried leaves into their dishes. But in the garden—and especially underfoot—herbs can fill the yard with atmospheric aromas just as tempting as those in the kitchen.

Line a pathway with these plants, where the slight crush of foot traffic will release their scent, or fill containers on the patio, where the slight brush of your hand will do the same.

The following herbs are easy to grow and provide a variety of fragrances, as well as clean, distinctive foliage that livens up the garden.

Artemisia: This often-overlooked herb features lacey, whitish-gray foliage that stands out among deeper greens; the light color also makes it a natural for the night garden. It has a bitter flavor, but a pleasingly astringent scent.

Lavandula: Among gardeners’ favorites, and often planted solely for its blue to purple flower spikes, lavender offers a soothing, meditative fragrance that is said to aid in sleep. In the garden or in a container, it’s one of those multipurpose plants: Use it for foliage, for color, for fragrance, for culinary treats, and for encouraging relaxation.

Mentha: With a nearly unlimited variety of “flavored” mints, including chocolate, lemon, apple, pineapple, peppermint, and spearmint, your garden could be dominated by its varieties. It’s best to incorporate similar fragrances, however, so that they don’t compete and overwhelm each other.

Rosmarinus: Rosemary’s scent is unmistakably earthy and evergreen; brush or crush the leaves to release the plant’s power. The needlelike foliage can be trained into topiary shapes or left to form a shrubby focal point.

Thymus: Especially fragrant when the foliage is crushed, thyme plants are naturals for placing in rock garden crevices and between paving stones. The groundcover varieties quickly form thick mats and are tough enough to thrive under light pedestrian traffic.    

What’s your favorite fragrance?

Is it something spicy? Soft and sweet? Rich and musky? Chances are your favorite scent reminds you of someone or something you love. Studies have shown that, in order for a fragrance to mean something—to elicit any sort of response, good or bad—it first must be associated with an event or situation. Perhaps your beloved grandmother grew lilies of the valley, whose sweet and spicy fragrance you’ve grown to favor. Or maybe your favorite vacation spot is a cabin deep in the woods, where the scent of pine is both invigorating and relaxing.

According to these scientific studies, your brain has learned to associate positive emotions with these fragrances, and that sense “memory” can be triggered by the slightest whiff. We often don’t recall the specifics, but that overall feeling of “aahhh” is unforgettable.

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