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Walking through the garden – ideally barefoot, feeling the earth beneath your feet – and catching a heady scent of something in flower is such a pleasure. It is very easy to be led by the eye when it comes to plants and flowers, but when you also involve other senses, the garden becomes an immersive place, and this changes how you move through it. Flower scents are not there to please humans, though. It’s there to attract the pollinators: a delicious-smelling plant can sing with bees. And it’s not only flowers that have a smell; leaves can be heavenly too.
There’s a scented plant for almost every spot, from deep shade to sunny windowsill.
Plus, if you’re going to walk about barefoot, there are few things so lovely to brush up to as a thyme plant along a path’s edge.
Thymus ‘Coccineus’ group, with its tight, creeping habit, means it’s great for growing between paving and will tolerate light foot traffic releasing its delightful scent. Likewise, T. herba-barona, the caraway–scented thyme, is a good choice and lovely to cook with, particularly in stews and casseroles.
I’ve let the brick footpath in my front garden become colonised by wild marjoram, Origanum vulgare. As the bricks sit in sand, rather than being cemented in, it has appeared everywhere. Its delicious herby smell accompanies my journey to the door on a hot day, and because its pretty white flowers are adored by bees, I get a soundtrack to my walk, too.
At the other end of spectrum is the Fringe Cup, from the Tellima grandiflora ‘Odorata Group’. This low-growing perennial does little to suggest that it has such a sweet scent – the pale lime-green flowers are quite small – but what it lacks in showiness it makes up for in perfume. A clump of fringe cup will stop you in your tracks. It’s low-maintenance and does well in dappled shade, making it useful around deciduous trees. It works well planted with brunnera, dicentra, ferns and shade-loving geraniums.
Another cottage garden favourite, this time for a spot in full sun, is dianthus, or pinks. Not all pinks are bred for scent, but those that are perfumed range from the sweet and heady to deeply satisfying clove aromas. The pure white, button-hole perfection of the clove-scented D. ‘Bridal Star’ is perfect for cutting as it repeat-flowers all summer long. For window boxes or pots on balconies, try the alpine varieties, such as D. ‘Berry Blush’, D. ‘Aztec Star’ and D. ‘Cherry Burst’, all of which don’t grow over 20cm and won’t mind being blown about a bit.
Or try one of the truly old-fashioned pinks, all of which have good scent and a subtle elegance that you don’t tend to find in modern breeding. Believed to date from around 1700, D. ‘Elizabethan Pink’ has a single white flower with a maroon eye and lacing, and a deep clove scent.
If you want something a little statelier, you can’t go wrong with the woodland tobacco plant or Nicotiana sylvestris. In our climate, it is treated as a half-hardy annual or bedding plant. It’s too late now to sow seeds, but you may be able to find young plants to buy. It can cope with shade and sun and will be happy in a north-east-facing spot if it gets a little sunshine, or in a big pot or the ground. Give the plants space, though, as each can grow up to a metre-and-a-half tall and half-a-metre wide; if you overcrowd them, you’ll weaken them and slugs will take advantage.
Woodland tobaccos have elegant white, trumpet-shaped flowers with the most heavenly, slightly addictive smell that, because it’s moth-pollinated, only gets going at night. Plant them near your outdoor dining area and drink in the scent on a warm summer’s evening. The cultivar N. ‘Only the Lonely’ has particularly long trumpets.
Another tobacco with good evening scent is jasmine or sweet tobacco (N. alata). Again, these are treated as bedding plants in the UK, so buy in young plants. It needs part shade, as too much sun and dry conditions lead to mildew on the leaves. My mother grew it in a window box under the porch and it thrived – in part because she kept it well watered. If you have a protected balcony or courtyard, it will flower its socks off in pots from now until autumn.
I like the variety N. ‘Lime Green’, with its velvety acid-green flowers; they make good cut flowers as they combine well with so many things. I also like N. ‘Grandiflora’, which has creamy-white flowers and is the most highly scented of all tobacco plants. Again, it’s happiest in shade as strong sunlight will bleach it.
Nemesia ‘Wisley Vanilla’ smells especially good in the evenings. It grows to only 30cm high – perfect for a pot by the door. It has delicate white flowers with a yellow eye; and if you keep on top of deadheading and watering, it will flower all summer long.
If vanilla is a little bland, how about the scent of chocolate? ‘Chocolate cosmos’ or Cosmos atrosanguineus has blood-red, velvety flowers that truly smell like melted chocolate. It’s best grown in pots or containers because you need to get up close to truly enjoy it. Put it in a large one, though, as it grows up to 90cm tall. It’s a tender perennial, so put it somewhere sheltered for winter.
Finally, the night phlox Zaluzianskya ovata ‘Star Balsam’ is a tiny alpine that blooms only at night. It’s small enough to go in a pot for the centre of an outdoor table, or a window box, so on those hot summer nights, you can drink its heady perfume.