Conjuring the Scent of a Garden

By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly

My garden is not a scent-free environment. In fact, the sense of smell may be the most important and vital factor to providing me happiness and contentment in the garden. It conjures memories, joy, and the sense of discovery and identification. Our 6-year-old nephew recently joined me in the garden, and his fearless inquisitive mind was like gold to me. “Here, smell this,” I said as I handed him a torn leaf of lemon balm. Tarragon, lily of the valley, fennel quickly followed, some including a nibble. He was game for anything and I gobbled up this fantastic moment.

I love discovering scent in the garden, and it’s one of my favorite things to do with others. It’s why our garden is jam packed with all kinds of plants to rub, crumble, and stick your nose into. Last week I found myself huffing lilacs, inhaling deeply and hard, heady with the old fashioned and unique fragrance that is fleeting but so defined for spring. As I write this from my back patio, the bubblegum sweetness of wisteria hangs heavy in the air and I know this weekend’s rains will most likely see those blooms to the ground, but in this moment, I am present and it smells damn good.

Scent is used specifically in therapeutic and healing gardens designed for the elderly and patients with dementia. In fact, of the five senses, our olfactory sense is the strongest emotional memory trigger. Scents are powerful in taking us back to different times in our lives: the smell of fresh cut grass and childhood sports, the heady scent of gardenia on a warm summer evening in our grandmother’s garden, the lavender fields of Provence we visited on a trip to France. Sometimes the memories may not be specific, but they simply trigger an emotion of happiness, warmth and familiarity. This is how it is for jasmine and me. You’ll find a large Trachelospermum jasminoides, commonly referred to as Confederate Jasmine,on our front porch, and at our back door. When they are in bloom, I’ll open the doors and windows and their scent will blow through the house, enveloping me in memories of my childhood and the night blooming jasmine just underneath my bedroom window.

Roses vary wildly in their range of scent, from musk to sugar to citrus and what some refer to as “old rose.” A bouquet of mixed roses from several of these kinds can fill a room and send your nose swirling with delight.

I asked readers on my Facebook page their favorite scents in the garden. Comments ranged from tomato leaves to dirt to honeysuckle and daphne, mock orange, peonies and “warm fig leaves, crushed in my hand” (thank you, Brenda K. for that bit of poetry). It’s interesting to think that what smells delightful to one person is not so good to another, and many times this comes from our cultural memories. To some, the scent of lilies is associated with the sadness of funerals, and to many Chinese, the scent of rosemary as well. “Rosemary for remembrance” is but one saying, but in many cultures as well as folklore, a sprig of rosemary was placed in the hands of the deceased at a funeral as a symbol of remembrance.

If you come for a visit in our garden, you will be forced to smell my favorite tree. Not only does the Harlequin glorybower have a heavy scented flower in mid-summer, but its leaves, when rubbed, smell exactly like peanut butter. This one gets double the points on the olfactory scale for being a two-fer.

Scented-leaf geraniums are an entirely wild grab bag of possibilities. Chocolate mint, pineapple, coconut, lime, rose and apricot are all scents available in these Pelargoniums.  Nutmeg scented geraniums are a classic, and I can’t resist buying them when I find them at plant sales. It only takes a brush from your hand to release their fragrance into the air. I grow them more for their scent than for their blooms. You should too.


A list of favorite scents in my Portland garden:

  • Chocolate Cosmo
  • Clerodendrum trichotomum Harlequin Glorybower
  • Confederate Jasmine
  • Curry plant
  • Daphne odora
  • Jonquils (fragrant daffodil)
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Lilac
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Pelargonium citronellum ‘Mabel Grey’
  • Rose ‘Jude the Obscure’
  • Stachys albotomentosa ‘7-Up Plant’
  • Sarcococca ruscifoliaSweet box
  • Violet
  • Wisteria

LeAnn Locher can be found huffing her lilacs in her N. Portland garden. She loves to connect with readers and answer questions at or