Spent the afternoon hiking in Big Basin State Park in search of blooming Western azaleas. There are several large specimens right at park headquarters but I wanted to find some out in the forest. Our hike took us up into the shaded understory of old growth redwoods and douglas firs and the largest huckleberries I’ve ever seen. The weather was perfect. Earlier in the week temps hit mid 90’s but today was barely 80 degrees and very pleasant. It really wasn’t until we hit the lower part of Dool trail that we found the elusive Western azalea growing in the sun along the stream. The scent of this plant fills the air. Wonderful. Seems this plant will get quite large and grow happily in the shade but it just won’t bloom unless it’s in the sun. I plan to search more trails in the park for this very fragrant flowering shrub.
I confess I live vicariously through other people’s gardens mostly at this time of year. While I’m quite content to live in partial shade during the warm months of the year I miss having winter sun to jump start the early spring show of flowers. Everything arrives later in my garden. My flowering cherry and plums never disappoint but I see the fragrant winter daphne already in full bloom in Ben Lomond. I have plant envy.
If you yearn for fragrant flowers have I got the plant for you. Paperbush Plant or Yellow Daphne as it’s sometimes called (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is related to daphne and shares that intoxicating scent. My friend has one of these. You know, the friend who shall remain nameless but writes the food column for this paper. Anyway, hers is starting to open and those butter-yellow flower clusters are as unique as anything you’ll ever see.
This deciduous shrub makes a fine backdrop in a dappled shade garden. Later in the spring it will fill out with slender blue-green foliage that turns yellow in the fall. Edgeworthia transforms into a glorious neatly mounding shrub in the summertime. Even the bark rises to the occasion being both beautiful and useful. Used for wallpaper and calligraphy paper now, historically it was used to make Japanese bank notes. You can even use the supple stems in wreaths as they are easily knotted.
I had to wait a couple years for my variegated winter daphne to settle in before setting flowers. This winter the flower clusters are about ready to open. There’s something special about a plant that will bloom in winter, hold up to rain and scent the garden all at the same time. With beautiful rosy-pink flower clusters and attractive yellow-margined variegated foliage, winter daphne make a great foundation plant for dappled shade gardens. They are deer resistant and have low water requirements during the summer. What’s not to love?
Also here in my own garden the hellebore flowers are holding up well. One of my favorites is called Cinnamon Snow but I have a couple that bloom with spectacular double flowers they are beautiful also. All of the varieties of this buttercup relative accept wind, rain, cold and less than perfect soil while getting by with only moderate watering in the shady summer garden. Deer aren’t attracted to them either.
Another tough plant that can take weather extremes is the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub (Pieris japonica). There are many varieties of this early winter bloomer. Some have pure white flowers, other sport various shades of pink or dark rose. Mine is the smaller variegated foliage model with dainty, drooping clusters of pure white flowers in early spring. Right now it is covered with flower buds so dense that you’d think it was already blooming. The new growth in the spring has a beautiful pink tint. This shrub will hold up to the wildest weather. Another plus for the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub is that is useful for fire-scaping in the landscape and it isn’t on the menu for deer either.
A favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers is the evergreen mahonia. Plant a mahonia if you want to attract winter hummingbirds. They are blooming now with bright yellow flower clusters that will last for months. Each flower will set a purple berry looking like a cluster of grapes. The edible berries make good jelly, too. There are 70 varieties of mahonia including our own native Oregon Grape which grows in the understory of Douglas fir forests. Mahonia aquifolium is resistant to summer drought, tolerates poor soil and doesn’t create a lot of leaf litter.
Some years plants bloom a couple weeks earlier than usual but not this year. Our February weather put many plants on hold. Nature’s catching up now. Outside my window the Blireiana flowering plum is covered with dark pink, double blossoms. It’s one of my favorite spring blooming trees with a sweet fragrance strong enough to scent the garden. It usually blooms in February in time for my birthday but not this year. Worth the wait. We all look forward to the earliest flowers of the new season. Spring officially began on March 20th.
The cold and rainy weather didn’t stop an old fashioned shrub like forsythia from blooming. They figure prominently in many old gardens because they are tough plants, able to survive neglect and still look beautiful. The bare stems of forsythia are completely covered with deep golden-yellow flowers in late winter and early spring and become the focal point of the landscape when in full bloom. The showy stems of this easy care shrub are great for cutting. Forsythias are native to eastern Asia but a chance discovery in Germany by a grower who specialized in breeding for the cut flower industry led to the especially vivid variety ‘Kolgold’ in the 1800’s. Forsythia has long been used in Chinese medicine. The flower petals contain powerful bacteria-fighting properties which make it an important dressing.
Flowering quince is another old garden staple providing early color. They are easy to care for and nearly indestructible in almost any soil that is well drained and not overly fertile. Once established quince is a very drought tolerant plant and their spiny branches make them an excellent choice for hedges, screening or as a security barrier. There are red, pink, orange and white flowering varieties. The Toyo Nishiki cultivar even has pink, white and solid red flowers all on the same branch.
Buds are just starting to form on my clivia or Kaffir Lily. What would a shade garden be without a bright orange clivia? Every year I look forward to their huge flower clusters that emerge from between dark green, strappy leaves. Even in dark shade they will bloom and brighten the late winter/early spring garden although they would do fine in morning sun. If you have a north facing window you can grow them as houseplants. Clivias are hardy to several degrees below freezing. I have a yellow flowering variety also but I’m not seeing any buds forming yet. Possibly it’s too young. Clivie bloom best when crowded.
A beautiful vine that blooms at this time of year is hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’. In the pea family, this evergreen vine looks like a small wisteria when in bloom. Pinkish-purple flowers cascade in clusters on twining stems that reach 12-16 feet long. They require little water once established and are hardy to about 23 degrees. If you have an older, tangled plant you can rejuvenate it with hard pruning in early spring after flowering. Never prune in late summer or fall because you will cut off the wood that is going to bloom the following winter.
The last plant I couldn’t live without is Fragrant Sarcococca. The tiny white flowers of this plant are easily overlooked but you can’t miss their scent. I have one near the front door that greets me with that vanilla fragrance every time I walk in or out. The flowers are followed by a bright red fruit. Sweet Box forms a natural espalier against a wall and if you have a problem spot in deep dry shade where other plants won’t grow give this plant a try. They are easy to grow, deer resistant and trouble free.
It was an especially fragrant bouquet of roses on my dining table this week that got me thinking about what an incredible thing our sense of smell is. it’s the only sense that has a direct connection to our brains. We can detect at least a trillion distinct scents. Our scent cells are renewed every 30 to 60 days. Some of the most pleasurable scents, according to recent research, include vanilla, some orange scents, cinnamon, crayons and cookies. I don’t have any crayon or cookie scented flowers but wouldn’t that be a great addition in the garden?
Where does fragrance come from? Fragrance in flowers is nature’s ways of encouraging pollination. Just as it draws you to take a deeper whiff, it lures insects to blossoms hidden by leaves and other plants. Some flowers are fragrant only at night and attract only night-flying pollinators like moths, while others are more fragrant only during the day and attract insects like bees and butterflies. The fragrance itself comes from essential oils called attars that vaporize easily and infuse the air with their scents. They are present in different combinations in different plants, but often they are markedly similar which is why there are irises that smell like grapes and roses that smell like licorice.
Place sweet-smelling plants where you can enjoy them throughout the season. The potency of flower scents varies greatly, so consider the strength of a fragrance when deciding where to put a plant. Subtle fragrances such as sweet peas. lemon verbenas, scented geraniums and chocolate cosmos smell wonderful right outside the back door. Add stronger scents where people naturally congregate- decks, pools and spa areas, dining alcoves, gazebos. Stargazer lilies, jasmine, lilacs, daphne, citrus and peonies will make your guests linger.
Your front entry should have fragrant plants to greet you when you come home. Train a fragrant climbing rose over a pergola at the gate. Fill some of the containers in your entry with scented bedding plants like dianthus , nemesia, freesias, stock or aromatic evergreens like rosemary and lavender. Plant sweet smelling shrubs like Mexican orange, buddleja, or philadelphus beside a path. Or plant carnations or lavender next to a garden bench or near your hammock.
Be sure to include fragrant plants that release their scent in the evening, especially in the areas of the garden you most frequent after dark. Since the majority of night-scented blossoms have white flowers, these plants also light up the landscape at night. Angel trumpet or brugmansia is one such plant as is flowering tobacco and night blooming jessamine.
Several easy-to-grow shrubs have fragrant flowers as an added bonus. Choisya blooms smell like oranges as does pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive or osmanthus have a delicate apricot fragrance.
Other fragrant plants include California native Philadelphus lewisii. Calycanthus occidentals is native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.
Ideally, when you’ve finished, your garden will smell as intriguing as an expensive perfume. The top note will be floral- jasmine, honeysuckle, rose. The middle register will be spicy, such as the vanilla of heliotrope or purple petunias or the clove of dianthus. Finally, underneath the tones that give perfumes their vigor, like artemisia, sage and santolina.
Not every inch of the garden needs to be fragrant but a waft or two of fragrance from the right plants can turn a garden from ordinary to enchanting.
A sweet fragrance permeates the air as I step out my front door. Could it be the white flowering wild ceanothus cuneatus blooming now on the hillside and smells of plum blossoms and roses? Maybe the scent is coming from the fragrant sarcococca with those tiny white flowers you can barely see but can smell a mile away. Or could it be the sweetly scented lily-of-the-valley flowers blooming on the back patio? Make fragrance a daily delight with plants that release their perfume at different times of the day and the year.
The word fragrance comes from the 17th century French word fragrantia meaning sweet smell. A garden’s fragrance can be as unforgettable as its appearance. The scent of a particular flower can make you remember past times and places. Plant them along a garden path to enjoy as you stroll, in containers to scent a deck or patio or locate them beneath a window and let their aroma drift indoors.
Several easy-to-grow shrubs have fragrant flowers as an added bonus. Mexican Orange or choisya ternata blooms most of the year. Pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira all have tiny blossoms that also smell like oranges. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive or osmanthus have a delicate apricot fragrance.
Then there are the perennials. My garden comes on a little later than most and the buds of the fragrant variegated Zebra iris are just opening. They will smell like grape Kool-aid when the sun allows the scent to develop.
Last year Chris and Rick Moran over at Brook Lomond Iris Farm gave me a couple Zebra rhizomes and they are growing quite nicely. Every year the Moran’s have a tall bearded iris show and sale over two weekends in the spring. This May 13th and 14th is the second weekend and the show takes place at their garden located at 10310 California Drive in Ben Lomond. The Iris Farm is educational, too, as the Moran’s are well-versed in organic gardening practices.
Chris told me a scented flower story about an iris called Scented Nutmeg. Seems that when the long awaited flower finally opened she bent down and smelled nothing. The blue flower was pretty anyway. Later when working out in the garden she smelled cookies baking. As none of the neighbors were home at the time she was puzzled. Sitting down the smell hit her again and she realized she was right next to the Scented Nutmeg. They just needed the sun to warm up the flower to give off the scent.
Other fragrant plants include California natives Philadelphus lewisii or Wild Mock Orange. Calycanthus occidentals or Spice Bush is native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.
In spring there may be nothing quite as spectacular as a wisteria vine, loaded with fragrant purple, pink, blue or white flower clusters, covering an arbor or pergola. Pink jasmine is another vigorous vine with intensely fragrant flowers as is Evergreen Clematis.
I can’t leave out the old fashion border carnation or dianthus. Their clove-scented flowers are born in profusion making them a nice addition to the mixed flower border and containers.
The list goes on and includes scented plants such as nemesia, wallflower, Japanese snowbell, hosta, coneflower, daphne, vitex, viburnum, Oriental lily, gardenia, nicotiana, phlox, rose, sweet pea, hyacinth, lilac, flowering crabapple, heliotrope, lavender, sweet alyssum, peony, moon flower, southern magnolia.
Where’s your favorite place to hang out when you’re at home? For many of us relaxing on the patio or reading under a tree is our go-to place. Grilling on the barbecue or sitting around a fire pit is another favorite outdoor activity. For kids and adults who enjoy sports or games it’s the play area that gets all the attention. And for veggie gardeners it’s harvesting and cooking up a delicious meal from produce you’ve grown yourself that’s high on the list. Whatever you like to do in your yard there are simple ways to give your garden a makeover and make your outdoor area more inviting.
Recently I got lost in Boulder Creek looking for a client’s house on the river. I peeked through an arbor and into a small garden surrounded by shade trees and flowers. A couple sitting at a bistro table were enjoying a late lunch. They were kind enough to direct me to their neighbors house which was right next-door. Seems I wasn’t lost after all. I’ll never forget the lovely table this couple had set on their small patio. With a bright tablecloth, colorful stemware and what appeared from a distance to be a luscious fruit salad the scene would have looked right at home in Sunset magazine. These people knew the importance of extending their living space into the outdoors. They told me they enjoy this every weekend.
Create atmosphere in your garden.Make sure the entire garden can’t be seen in one glance. A garden room is defined by borders and enclosure. That’s what made the secret garden I discovered by accident in Boulder Creek so effective. It was partly shielded by the canopy of a tree. I’m not sure what the vine-covered arbor at the entry was made of but you could make a rustic arbor yourself from downed branches. Short fences with a gate can enclose your garden room also. Even just a gate between shrubs will blur the garden’s boundaries as will a curved path that leads behind tall shrubs or sheer perennials.
Creating an outdoor room with vines will make your yard feel cozy. They readily provide the walls to enclose a space. Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely. Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established. Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape. By adding walls and a ceiling to your garden, you’ll be able to enjoy another dimension in addition to more color and fragrance.
Garden lighting is another easy way to add atmosphere to your garden. As inviting a space a garden might be during the day it becomes magical at night when lit. Solar lighting has come a long way. Walk your property and decide the most effective spots for lighting. Pathway lighting can illuminate the driveway, walkways and steps and mark the edges of areas like ponds and patios. Accent lighting can define a space and show off plantings, benches or illuminate a pergola. Spotlights direct the eye up into trees, show off garden art or accent a focal point.
Each of the senses comes into play in a successful garden. The sense of sight is an easy way to create atmosphere. Use the colors and textures you most admire and repeat them. A green framework holds the garden together but color creates the mood. Whether you like vivid saturated colors or soft pastels broad sweeps of color are more effective than dabs and patches.
Sound is important too. In my own garden I have several wind chimes. Ornamental grasses rustle in the wind and adding a fountain with running water is high on my wish list. An urn fountain with pebbles and plants at the base would be a simple choice. A drilled basalt column fountain or basalt dish fountain would look natural in the forest here. But until Santa comes I’ll be content with adding another rustling grass to my garden.
Your sense of smell is important also to create atmosphere in the garden. In the spring the smell of ceanothus fills the air. Then the stargazer lilies start to bloom followed by lily-of-the-valley, daphne, flowering crabapple, carnation, iris, heliotrope, lavender, alyssum and a couple of roses. By enjoying the fragrance of both flowers and the foliage of salvia, lavender and breath of heaven as I walk the garden I’m able to add another dimension to the garden.
Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home so make yours even more inviting.