Scented Spring Shrubs

Crocuses...they are coming you know.Shrubs are a fundamental part of any garden, the bones and character of the average backyard, they define the space with their particular look and fragrance.

Witchhazel is a shrub with an astounding bloomtime. You can buy witchhazels which bloom in the autumn (when hardly anything else will flower), late winter, or earliest spring. A non conformist of a plant, the witchhazel presents you with a strange perfume more like fabric than a sweet bloom and it’s blooms are like streamers! They do come in a variety of colors (the dark copper blossoms are a change from the intense yellow of most of this family). Easy to grow and much to look forward to, a great choice if you have clay soil.

Also for anyone who struggles with clay soil is the viburnum. There are many many different varieties of viburnum but I like the Carlesii type for it’s charming clove and sweet fragrance and strong throw. They only bloom for a week, but what a memorable week that is. Make sure you investigate what kind of blooms it makes, though. Some of the viburnums are unscented or even have a bad scent!

Azaleas are flowers that we don’t usually think of as scented, but many varieties are. Their fragrance is delightful and I lived growing Klondike for years. I looked forward to it’s strong and beautiful flowers.

Finally, lilacs are one of the prima donna flowers in the garden. Their color range has improved greatly over the original, well, lilac color. Now there are whites, pinks, lilacs, purples, and a fabulous shade of yellow. So pretty and good smelling at the same time. Their spade shaped leaves are a treat, too.

Planning

VioletsnowSpring is almost on us and now is the time to consider what you are going to plant in your garden this year. Being a perfumer, I always take fragrance into consideration before buying plants and you might like a few ideas in regard to what could be perfuming your backyard this year.

Lots of great fragrance plants dot the springtime landscape. Violets are inexpensive, downright invasive, great groundcover for shady areas and pump out a perfume which is subtle and exquisite in April. Be sure to see that they are the scented variety, not all are. Most fragrant violets are purple/mauve. Also, be sure that you are buying the hardy sort, Parma violets are wonderful but they won’t survive freezing winters and are better thought of as indoor plants.

Narcissus are some of the prettiest scents on the planet. They rank up there with osmanthus for sheer beauty. Easy to grow, cold hardy, late blooming (end of April after all of the other daffodils have come and gone), inexpensive and easily found, Cheerfulness is a great addition to your garden. Sir Winston Churchill is another variety of the late narcissus to consider.

On the subject of daffodils, and EARLY ones you might want to try out Tete-A-Tete. They are miniature daffodils, hardy as rocks, they will spread a bit after planted and smell really lovely. Also inexpensive, you could very likely afford to plant a great many for a small price.

Reticulated iris and yellow primroses have a beautiful violet-like fragrance. It is distinguishable from violet but it is in that family and I find iris and primrose hard to live without. The iris is a very hardly little flower, plant it once and it returns forever. Where I live, the primrose won’t survive our hot and humid summers, and so I grow it as an indoor plant. Both have a small fragrance, they don’t broadcast very far so be sure to remember to put your nose in their blooms as you pass by and you will be richly rewarded.

Don’t forget lily of the valley and grape hyacinths as well! They both have scent, lily of the valley is great for shady sections of your garden and has a very strong scent which can roll across a path in early May and enchant you with it’s petticoat-like flowers. Grape hyacinths are a beautiful surprise in tucked away spaces. Their stalks of blue flowers trimmed in white do have a special “grapy” smell to them and they make lovely cut flowers for tiny bouquets around your house.

Ambergris

I think that a small essay on ambergris is in order. Ambergris is a perfume fixative and comes from a natural source: the whale. It’s usually found as an amorphous lump which can weigh up to about 100 lbs (!) and is thought to be an excretion of the whale against sharp objects it eats. It is suspected that when a whale eats a squid, that the beak is coated with a sticky, waxy substance (ambergris) so it won’t cut the inside of the whale’s digestive system. Then it is excreted by either pooping it out or throwing it up.

Once out of the whale, it really smells awful. It’s white or light gray and it floats (because it’s waxy). At this point it doesn’t sound like something that anyone would want. However, when it has been exposed to the air and light for a long time (months) it starts to smell very appealing to people! So, ambergris is cured by floating around in the sea and being shined on by the sun and aging. It’s just one of Nature’s minor miracles that something which starts off as revolting ends up as divine.

One of the values of ambergris is that it fixes the scents of perfume. It just makes fragrance last longer, and it gives a very welcoming and subtle addition to the scent of whatever it combines with. It smells like something volatile without the volatility, if you know what I mean. It’s somewhat marine (as you might expect) but has a sophisticated almost fabric-sizing sort of an element to it combined with the scent of wet silk chiffon. There is also an element of either cedar or camphor to it, and an animalic part to the scent.

Ambergris is very expensive, and in the past labdanum was used as a substitute for it. Labdanum has more of a “wooly” scent to it to my nose and lacks a sharp part to the character of ambergris but it is close enough to satisfy most people. Since it comes from a plant, it is a renewable natural resource.

There are quite a few artificial substitutes for it, one of the most famous (and popular) is ambroxan, a white crystal which is soluble in warm oil base and made from the natural plant material, clary sage!

If you want to read more about ambergris from a very entertaining source, Moby Dick (the great American novel by Herman Melville) has a great passage about it.