Friday, February 09, 2007

Fragrant Herbs for Container and Garden

Aromatherapy has been a hot topic for some time now, but it shows no signs of fading away. Far from it – scented candles have pushed other merchandise off the shelves in malls across the country, while our television viewing is interspersed with ads for scented air fresheners in liquid, solid or oil forms, plug-ins, machines that shoot puffs of fragrance into the air, even CDs that “play” different fragrances throughout the day.
Since many of these synthetic fragrances are meant to convey images of the great outdoors, fresh cut grass as well as floral fragrances galore, many people assume that just by planting flowers, a fragrant garden is sure to follow. Those who have more experience know that while many flowers are virtually without scent, the needles of some conifers, the bark of some trees and the foliage of numerous plants can often compete with the fragrance of the most valuable perfumed flowers.
Think perfume and many people instantly focus on roses, lilacs or mock orange blossoms. In their strongest forms, these wonderful scents can sometimes be overpowering. To broaden the range of fragrances in your garden, try incorporating a variety of herbs in beds, borders or containers. Herbs are useful on many levels – they are ornamental, many are fragrant, some have medicinal uses and many just beg to clipped for culinary purposes. Some herbs release their fragrance through flowers, but a great many herbs release their aroma most powerfully when brushed against or when the foliage is handled or rubbed.
Plant a variety of herbs so you can choose your fragrance according to your mood – spicy, zesty, astringent, flowery, minty, musky, citrusy, sweet, sour or even for variety, somewhat repulsive. While not all herbs are readily available, a growing number of garden centers, and even grocery stores, are stocking the more common herbs with their staple spring deliveries of annuals and perennials.
Seeds of both annual and perennial herbs are also available in seed form from respected mail order companies. Ordering seeds by mail or online greatly increases the variety of plants available, and most will reach a good size in a single planting season. Most herbs perform best in full sun, and the more tender plants can be gradually prepared for indoor life before the first frost hits.
Start growing herbs in containers until you get a good idea of their hardiness, their soil and water preferences as well as growth habit and ultimate size. Some of the more prolific herbs are best planted in containers in any case, because of their tendency to take over the flower bed. Put the containers along paths or on patios where people will brush against them, or in containers near doors, windows or seating areas.
The following list is sure to contain some old friends and familiar names, but don’t hesitate to try some of the unfamiliar herbs, too. It takes only a minimal investment of time and money to grow an herb garden designed to tempt your nose as well as your taste buds. Try some of the more potent or even “stinky” herbs, too – smelling them can be quite an experience.
Landscape contractors, take note when designing gardens for children – kids love to handle and smell fragrant plants, but their favorites can be clearly delineated by age and sex: little girls pick the pretty or fruity fragrances nine times out of ten, while the little boys gravitate to the strongest scents, particularly the really noxious, repulsive ones, almost without fail.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum) – Anise has been known as a culinary, medicinal and aromatic herb since ancient times. The fragrance is found primarily in the oil found in its crushed seeds. Anise is used to flavor perfumes and soaps as well as mouthwash and toothpaste. It is recommended as a companion plant to coriander.

Artemisia, Wormwood (Artemisia spp.) – Many species of Artemisia are fragrant in varying degrees. Some are pleasantly fragrant, others less so. A. camphorata, for instance, smells like moth balls and can be used for the same purpose.

Aztec Sweet Shrub (Lippia dulcis) – Sometimes used as a sugar substitute, this ground cover has such a sweet leaf that it is often used to sweeten fruit salads. Others chew the leaves like candy, picked right off the plant. Lippia graveolens, on the other hand, is a tender herb commonly known as Mexican oregano, which shares many of the traits of oregano (Origanum spp.).

Basil (Ocimum spp.) – Basil is best known for its use in Italian cooking, as the primary ingredient in pesto sauces. Fresh basil leaves are preferred for culinary use, dried basil is popular in potpourris. The leaves of basil plants release a wonderful fragrance when they are handled. There are many species of basil, and the fragrance varies with the species. For example, Lemon basil (O. americanum) has a strong, lemony scent, anise basil (O. basilicum ‘Anise’ smells like anise, cinnamon basil (O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’) smells like its name, as does camphor basil (O. kilimandscharicum). A form of Thai basil called O. basilicum ‘Thyrsiflora’ has a very sweet fragrance while O. gratissimum smells like cloves.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) – Known more for its colorful flowers than for its citrusy fragrance, bee balm is popular as a dried flower in potpourris because of the similarity of its fragrance to the tropical orange bergamot tree.

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) – An herb in the ginger family, the seedpods of this plant release a fragrance that is spicy and exotic, loved by some but considered a bit too powerful by others. The seedpods are popular for use in sachets and potpourris.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) – The scent of this plant tends to be more popular with cats than with people. Centuries back, catnip was valued as a fumigant and over the years it has also been used to make tea.

Chamomile, Roman (Matricaria chamomilla, Anthemis nobilis) – A compact perennial with a strong fragrance.

Chamomile, German or Wild (Matricaria recutita) – The delicate, apple-like fragrance of chamomile has made it popular as a soothing tea.

Coriander and Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) – Confusingly, cilantro and coriander have the same botanic name because they are different parts of the same plant. Cilantro is the herb, the plant itself, while coriander is the name for the aromatic seed of the plant, which is used as a spice. Coriander, which is often found as an ingredient in perfumes and cosmetics, is described by some as “fresh and sweet”. Although coriander is also a culinary herb, others describe its aroma as “unpleasant”, at the very least. Coriander was used in Roman times in vinegars for preserving meats.

Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii) – The potent aroma of this plant is said to be useful as an insect repellent. Corsican mint is best used as an outdoor plant. It can be grown as a ground cover in full sun – it can even be grown between stepping stones, since it will usually survive foot traffic once it is established.

Epazote, Mexican Tea, Pigweed (Chenopodium ambrosioides) – Pungent is a good word to describe the fragrance of this herb – others have said it smells like kerosene or gasoline. Epazote is commonly used in Mexican-style recipes to control gas from black beans.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) – A bitter, aromatic herb in the mint family. Long considered a cough remedy, a juice extracted from the leaves of this herb is used in the production of liqueuers, syrups, cough drops and candies.

Lavender, English (Lavandula angustifolia) – Although English lavender has attractive foliage and flowers, it is usually grown for its fragrance. It is used in the production of soaps, shampoos, sachets and potpourris. The flower color and winter hardiness vary with the cultivar. French lavender is less fragrant and less hardy than its English counterpart, but it is attractive to butterflies and bees.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – This member of the mint family is very fragrant but somewhat messy in habit. The strongest aromatic oils tend to be in the lower parts of the plant.

Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla) – The foliage releases a sweet lemon fragrance when the leaves are handled or brushed against. Sprigs of lemon verbena can be used as garnishes at the table, in potpourris, to scent bathwater, or for culinary purposes.

Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) – Marjoram has small leaves that are spicy and aromatic without being overpowering. It is best known as a culinary herb, but the foliage releases a subtle fragrance in the garden, too.

Mint (Mentha spp.) – Probably the best known of all the aromatic herbs, the fragrance varies with the type of mint. The strong scent of peppermint (Mentha X piperita) comes from an exceptionally high concentration of menthol in its oils, while the milder spearmint (M. spicata) makes it popular as a kitchen herb. Apple mint (M. suaveolens) and the variegated pineapple mint (M. suaveolens var. variegata) are also popular both in the garden and in the kitchen. The scent of pennyroyal (M. pulegium) is said to repel fleas. All species of mint are vigorous growers and can easily become invasive.

Oregano (Origanum spp.) – The most fragrant and flavorful oregano is not the common O. vulgare, but is considered to be O. hirtum, O. heracleoticum or O. vulgare ‘Viride’. The fragrance of oregano is often reminds people of pizza.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary has a fresh, somewhat piney scent that makes this herb popular for culinary use, for potpourris and sachets, soaps and shampoos, and as a garden plant. It grows to a fairly large shrub in the south, but it is not hardy in the Midwest.

Sage (Salvia spp.) – There are hundreds of species of sage, including some that are extremely aromatic. Blue sage (Salvia clevelandii) is popular in potpourris, pineapple sage (S. elegans) has a fruity fragrance and bright red flowers, while purple sage (S. officinalis ‘Purpurea’) has the distinctive aroma found in stuffing and sausages.

Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) – Scented geraniums are the mimics of the herb world, with species and cultivars mimicking the fragrances of almost every flower and fruit in the garden. The flowers are usually insignificant but the leaves are wonderfully fragrant when handled or brushed. Among the many fragrances to be found in the geranium genus are lemon, pine, apricot, nutmeg, lemon, rose, lemon-rose, mint, apple, lime, strawberry, coconut, chocolate, chocolate mint (this one prefers shade), citronella (known as “the mosquito plant” for its reputed repellent qualities), ginger, apple cider, cinnamon, musk and even champagne.

Thyme (Thymus spp.) – Another popular herb with many species and cultivars, each with distinguishing features, flower or leaf color, or fragrance. In addition to various flower colors and forms, common thyme (T. vulgare) has a familiar scent to those who use it in their cooking. Other fragrances include camphor, lemon, caraway, nutmeg and other spicy variations.

Vick’s Plant (Plectranthus purpuratus) – A tender annual also known as Spanish thyme or Cuban oregano, the fleshy leaves of this plant release a strong fragrance that will instantly bring to mind childhood memories of Vick’s Vapo-Rub R. When grown in a container, Vick’s plant can be overwintered indoors.


Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine, also reprinted in the magazine of the Cincinnati Flower Show


“Growing and Using Scented Geraniums,” by Mary Peddie, Judy Lewis and John Lewis,
Storey Publishing Bulletin A-131, 1991, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, VT

“Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs,” by Claire Kowalcik and William H. Hylton, Editors, 1998, Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA

“Color in the Garden, Fragrance in the Garden,” by Norman Taylor, 1953, D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., New York, NY

“Gardening for Fragrance,” Brooklyn Botanic Garden Plants and Gardens series, 1989, BBG Publications, Brooklyn, NY

“The Fragrant Garden,” by Louise Beebe Wilder, 1932, reprinted 1974, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY