You are walking through a local park when you suddenly stop dead in your tracks, transfixed by a spicy fragrance that has commanded your attention.
You are driving through a well-landscaped neighborhood in spring with the windows down when you encounter a deliciously sweet odor wafting on the air that reminds you of expensive perfume.
You linger in a neighbor’s garden, savoring just one more whiff of the delightful scent of some mysterious flower.
The smell is one of our most intimate and primitive senses, triggering an emotional response that endures in our memories. The fragrance is characteristic of the many things we encounter in our daily lives that power this sense.
We refer to a certain scent as fragrant when it triggers a positive emotional response, while we label unpleasant scents as malodorous or just plain “smelly”.
The fragrance also has an important role to play in the landscape, although it’s one that is often overlooked; I call fragrance the “forgotten landscape attribute”.
Too many gardeners and landscape designers are guilty of ignoring this critical characteristic of our landscapes, instead focusing on the primary visual attributes of color, shape, and texture.
And yet fragrance can be the most memorable and enduring element of our landscapes; after all, we are all familiar with the contention that smell is one of the foundations of memory.
Many common plants contribute fragrance to our landscapes, from the sickeningly sweet scents of a June linden tree in full bloom to the tiniest flowers of wooly thyme.
In general, though, there aren’t that many hardy trees with fragrant flowers, and while there are many perennials with various scents, they tend to give up their fragrant secrets only upon close inspection.
However, there are a number of highly fragrant shrubs that are hardy in the North, which afford more than enough fragrance to scent a garden or even an entire yard!
And so let me present to you five shrubs that I believe to be among the most delightfully fragrant for northern yards and gardens. I will assure you that I have sampled the potent perfumes of each of these many times, and they come with my personal endorsement (or at least that of my nose!).
If you enjoy the rich aroma of the pungent spices from distant lands, you’re going to cherish the clove currant. Anyone who has encountered a mature shrub in full bloom will immediately understand why it is given this name; it truly does smell like cloves and lots of them!
Unlike the other shrubs that I have listed, the fragrance of this one is almost entirely derived from a spice, with little sweetness to temper it. As a result, its scent will dominate the garden and scream for attention.
Clove currant is a versatile, tough, and hardy shrub. Like many of the larger currants, it will tend to grow a little gangly and shrubby with age, which can be managed with a program of yearly rejuvenation pruning.
Besides being fragrant, the bright yellow flowers are quite showy, emerging with the new foliage. It can have rich wine-red fall color in some years, but otherwise, this shrub is unremarkable. It’s probably best planted in a shrub border with others which will provide ornamental interest the rest of the year.
A close relative is a golden currant (Ribes aureum). Some experts don’t recognize a distinction between the two, and they really do look similar. However, from my experience, clove currant is considerably more fragrant and should be preferred if fragrance is the objective.
It’s a good thing that daphnes are the very compact size that they are; otherwise, one plant may overpower an entire neighborhood! From my experience, this may be the most potently fragrant shrub in the entire northern palette.
One branch of flowers can perfume the whole house, and just one small shrub will scent an entire garden. The fragrance can best be described as very sweet and pungent with no hint of spice, but distinctive nonetheless.
It blooms in May with very attractive deep pink blooms and recedes nicely into the garden border the rest of the year. The perfect plant, right?
Not really. Daphnes are notoriously finicky plants, as any gardener who has grown them knows. They will turn up their roots and die for so many unrelated reasons that it’s hard to actually say what their true hardiness really is.
One thing is certain; in zones 2 and 3, and even in more exposed parts of zone 4, a reliable cover of snow or mulch is almost mandatory for getting them through the winter, as their evergreen foliage is highly susceptible to winter sun damage.
The key to the long-term survival of daphnes is in proper siting at planting time. They require a morning sun with shade from the hot afternoon sun. They need immaculate drainage (as I discovered last spring…) and relatively neutral to heavy soil.
Even with all this care and attention, be prepared for the unexpected loss of your daphne every few years, but replace it quickly; even small shrubs are attractive and will provide fragrance for your garden.
All daphnes are highly fragrant, although rose daphne is probably the most potent and also the hardest. Others worth trying include February daphne (Daphne mezereum) and the popular hybrids Carol Mackie (Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’) and Somerset (Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Somerset’).
I live in Zone 3, and I would give my kingdom to be able to grow this shrub in my yard. In fact, if I could only pick one shrub to magically become hardy for my region, this would be the one. The fragrance of the late winter flowers defies description, but I’ll try anyway.
It’s haunting, mildly sweet, and infused with a delicious spice from somewhere deep in your childhood, a mysterious scent that perfumes the air without calling out for attention.
You’ll find yourself searching high and low for the source of the fragrance, and when you discover it, your nose will take over your brain and prevent you from leaving until darkness sets in. At least that’s what happened to me…
This is a beautiful landscape shrub aside from the fragrance. The large, coarse leaves have an interesting shape and put on a marvelous display of deep gold in fall. It’s a neat shrub, somewhat large when mature, and makes an ideal accent or framing shrub for the back of the border.
In warmer climates beyond zone 5, it will actually grow into a small tree. It tolerates a wide range of growing conditions, including particularly wet locations.
This shrub is related to the common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which is reliably hardy in zone 4. This shrub is quite unique in that it blooms in late fall, and while the flowers have some scent, it is lost in the potent smells of autumn.
The witch hazel hybrids popular in warmer climates are very fragrant but unfortunately aren’t reliably hardy even in zone 5.
Miss Kim Lilac
Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’
I hold a special place in my heart (or is that in my nose?) for plants whose sweet fragrance is infused with a hint of spice. That’s why I find Miss Kim lilac to be the finest of all the lilacs for fragrance, and that’s saying a lot.
This neat landscape shrub blooms in June with an abundance of rich lilac-purple flowers which have a fragrance that I would describe as delicious, sweet yet distinctly spicy, reminiscent of exotic delicacies from India and the Far East.
This is a plant you’ll want to locate near a walkway or entrance because all of your visitors are going to want to stop and savor the scent for a while.
Miss Kim is a beautiful landscape shrub even without the exotic fragrance. It maintains a uniform habit without the need for pruning and is neat and tidy all year round. It is non-suckering unlike the French hybrids, yet it makes a memorable natural hedge, one your nose will never forget when savored in full bloom.
Be careful with pruning this lilac; the flower buds are formed shortly after blooming, and untimely pruning can eliminate any chance of fragrance next year.
Most northerners know that all lilacs are fragrant to one degree or another. The popular French hybrids (Syringa vulgaris cv.) are sweetly fragrant, potent for sure but a little commonplace.
The dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’), which is gaining popularity in northern gardens, has a beautiful fragrance and would be my second choice behind Miss Kim; it’s possibly a little less spicy. Likewise the new Fairytale series of lilacs are wonderfully fragrant, although hardy to zone 3b at best.
Rosy Lights Azalea
Rhododendron ‘Rosy Lights’
When it comes to fragrance, some roses are highly fragrant while others have had every vestige of fragrance bred out of them in the quest for other ornamental attributes.
So it is with the enormous range of azalea cultivars on the market; some are potently fragrant while others only provide a hint of scent. Luckily, one of the hardiest azaleas is also one of the most fragrant.
I would describe the fragrance of the Rosy Lights azalea, a hardy introduction in the Northern Lights series from the University of Minnesota, as bold and audacious, strongly sweet and pungently spicy at the same time, commandeering your olfactory senses once encountered.
Mature plants are almost overpowering in their scent and will perfume an entire yard. The fragrance is borne upon a profusion of hot pink flowers which appear before the emergence of the leaves in early spring, a performance that grabs the eye as well as the nose from a great distance.
As members of the rhododendron family, azaleas are a challenge to grow for most northerners. Besides being a little delicate, they are extremely fussy about their growing conditions, requiring highly acidic and moist organic soil with excellent drainage.
You’re advised to consult an information sheet on the special care required for azaleas before attempting to bring these into your yard and gardens.
Other azaleas from the Northern Lights series are highly fragrant, including Spicy Lights (Rhododendron ‘Spicy Lights’) and the original hybrid Northern Lights (Rhododendron ‘Northern Lights’) itself.
Most of the others have lesser degrees of fragrance, with some like Orchid Lights (Rhododendron ‘Orchid Lights’) possessing no discernable fragrance at all. I’d suggest that you smell before you buy.