Home & Garden Columns

Scents in the Garden Come From More Than Flowers

By Ron Sullivan
Friday September 01, 2006

Flowers are the most obvious way to scent a garden, but they have lots of company. Fragrance in other plant parts is generally a side effect of strategies for things other than reproduction: water conservation, pest protection, even fire resistance.  

Some trees have so much native scent that a single specimen can evoke whole forests. There’s an incense cedar in a yard a few blocks from me that throws me mentally into the deep dark woods every time I walk past. 

California native bay laurel has a musky intriguing scent that works best in the fallen, dried leaves. One of either in a backyard is all it takes to evoke a forest, which is fortunate because that’s all the average yard has room for.  

Large trees’ odors can work against us, of course. Blue gum eucalyptus are camphorish enough most of the time, but they have a distinct aura of cat urine when they bask in the sun.  

Coleonema, “breath-of-heaven” and myrtle—Myrtis communis, the bush, not the groundcover—are shrubs whose leaves reward you with a spicy odor a bit like carnations’ when you rub them. I don’t know why anyone bothers to plant boxwood when these are available. 

Some of our native sages, especially Salvia clevelandii, emit marvelous scent when touched and have good hummingbird flowers too. Sniff before you buy; species and varieties have different scents, and, like cilantro, they can be a matter of individual taste. 

I planted scented geraniums along the narrow part of our driveway. Every time I back out I perfume the truck and I can tell by nose if I’ve steered badly. They’re tough plants, handsome, with varied textures and nice small flowers. And they come in so many scents that there must be something for everyone.  

For scent underfoot, intersperse steppingstones or pavers with groundcovers like the prostrate thymes. They come in flavors labeled as (and somewhat resembling) caraway, lemon, and lime as well as in different leaf colors with variations on the culinary thyme we’re used to. 

They can be used in cooking too, of course. If you have a wetter spot, try prostrate chamomile or Corsican mint.  

Fresh redwood-chip mulch is a most Proustian scent. It sends me right back to my days of gardening for a living, of changing some bit of California landscape by myself, by hand, and finishing the job by spreading mulch like baby-bunting and tucking the new plants in. 

Depending on where you grew up, you might get that same rush from tanbark, pine, even eucalyptus chips—from that last you’ll get a good sinus-clearing too.  

Since I grew up ten miles from Hershey, Pennsylvania there’s another memory-lane mulch for me: cocoa-bean hulls. 

They’re natural, available here too, add fertility, and smell like the hometown of the Hershey Bar. (Yes it does. And yes it has streetlamps shaped like Hershey’s Kisses, alternately silver-“wrapped” and brown. The silver ones have metal weathervane tags.) 

I mulched my mint bed with them once. I’ve since heard they’re toxic to dogs, so confine them to Spot-free spots.  


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in East Bay Home & Real Estate. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet.