Scents & Sensibilities: Winter Fragrance in the Garden

Ahhh fragrance….all I can say is “thank you” to the universe of sweet scents. With all these plants soon to be in bloom again, they count high among things to look forward to, so while we wait for winter to settle in for real, it seemed an apt time to revisit this piece. Enjoy.

My Daphne odora began its seasonal bloom this past week –delicate, pink-edged, four-petaled florets opening one at a time among larger clusters. I was working nearby – absently cleaning leaves out of and re-filling a bird bath, plucking weeds mindlessly from garden bed edges. One moment, I smelled nothing more than damp, rich earth. The next moment, a light, bright refreshingly sweet scent enveloped me. I came to a stand still, closed my eyes and breathed the scent in deeply. This is a scent that just gets me at the knees, I could smell it all day and then some. A garden friend says it’s like the universe reminding us to: WAKE UP.

But of course, I can’t smell my Daphne for very long; like all floral fragrance, it’s seasonally fleeting. Fragrance is an important element in any garden – it’s perhaps especially important in the winter garden, where subdued sparseness can dominate – and the surprise, almost epiphany of fragrance can shock us into the joys of the here and the now. Lifting us above the day to day. Photo: Winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), a large-growing shrub with an open arching habit that birds love.

Gardening is a full-contact, full-bodied, sensual human activity. As such, each of your five senses expects to participate: your eyes, your ears, your hands, your taste buds and your nose. According to experts, an average human nose has more than six million receptors, capable of distinguishing then thousand different smells. Photo: Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) bloom in mid-January along with the winter honeysuckle. On a warm day, draw near – their scent is that of fresh grass and honey. These tiny fall-planted bulbs are tough and will continue to bloom for years in the garden – naturalizing and increasing a little each season.

Despite being cognitive creatures with the ability to reason, the fact remains that at the most basic and primal of levels, we humans map our way in this world with our five senses, each informing us as to where we are and how we might respond to where we are. If we enter a garden and it carries no scent at all – just as if it carried no sound or color or idea of taste – we wouldn’t feel completely fulfilled there. Photo: Viola odorata – the name says it all. These carpet the leaf-mulch beneath my blue oaks. They seed themselves around liberally, but do not seem to bother the other plants much.

Photo: Narcissus – another scent that gets me at the knees.

A scentless garden would lack dimension – it would lack life.

In part, this is due to the emotive response we have to scent. Scent is closely related to taste. Due to the olfactory system’s physical position in relation to the brain’s amygdala and your body’s limbic – or sympathetic emotional response – system, scent is also strongly associated with memory and how we store memories as pleasant or unpleasant. As a result, smell is both a chemical and an emotional response – not all people like or dislike the same scents. Photo: In my mind, the blushing pendant clusters of blossoms on Ribes sanginueum are like love in bloom. This open, medium height California native shrub has an open habit and vertical growth. It prefers some water and some shade.

In my winter garden, scent begins far earlier than the Daphne in February. The fragrant fun starts in early January with wintersweet (Chimonanthes praecox) offered by a friend, then moves to winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), and on to the clean grassy scent of diminutive snow drops (Galanthus nivalis) – which you have to pick or get on your belly to enjoy. Violets next take center scent stage, followed by the Daphne’s unadulterated fragrance of sweet lemon and vanilla. Violets – particularly Viola odorata – have a warm, slightly deeper scent than the honeysuckle, Narcissus or Daphne. Violets are again petite in stature, requiring some intimacy to enjoy. Little posies in small containers in your kitchen, on your bedside or your desk produce pure, scent pleasure. Running from January through to late spring Narcissus are in abundance, their cheerful blooms and warm sweet scents filling the warming-sun afternoons in the garden. Pink Ribes comes on soon after, followed by early-blooming Ceanothus, which bear fragrant blue-purple blooms, Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) whose bright cheerful almost shockingly acid-yellow flower clusters are favorites of the bees. Not long after, the woodlands light up with redbud (Cercis occidentalis) whose blossoms have a light scent reminiscent of their lightly sweet taste. A panoply of herbs take off from there – one delicious sight and scent after another. Photo: Mint – whose crushed leaves are the scent of hot summer nights and a cold iced drink in the garden. Herbs are some of the most fragrant of plants. Interestingly, many prefer lean soil and little water to increase their potency both in taste and scent.

We are not the only ones enjoying – and sometimes depending on – these scented gifts to carry us through winter. Over-wintering native bees and even early butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds rely on them as well – their fragrance being one way pollinators (and we) find them.

One plant not in my current garden yet, but on my life list of spring fragrance favorites is Viburnum carlessii ‘Korean Spice’ – it has a slight cinnamon vanilla scent and always reminds me of my god mother, who gave me my first one for my first garden. Which brings me to another important aspect of fragrance. As a result of the emotional and associative memory dimension to it, scent in my winter garden does not really start with wintersweet or violets or Daphne. Most scents in my garden directly anchor me to scents and people, places or moments in the past: honeysuckle that grew wild along the rock walls on the walk to the beach as a girl, Daphne on my bedside table when visiting my parents’ last home and garden in South Carolina; Narcissus and daffodils by the hundreds in Kentucky woodlands visiting my grandfather one year; lilies of the valley (which were my mother’s wedding bouquet) – a perfume of which my mother wore when I was a little girl. The list is long. Fragrant plants in my garden do not just remind me to be fully in the present – they anchor me to the happiest of the past as well.

Sometime mid-march or early April, spring will roll her way for real across our region and a whole new course of plants and flowers will offer up their fragrance in the garden’s olfactory feast. But that’s another story to be enjoyed in its own time.

I’m not sure I could say which winter scent is my favorite … could you?Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook – like us today!

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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