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A Garden of Heavenly Scents
by Helen MacPherson
by Helen MacPherson


I’m a garden enthusiast from a way back and indulge my love of all things garden related on my quarter acre lot in Ancaster. I grow many of my own plants from seeds or cuttings and am a collector of garden books both new and old.

I am an active and enthusiastic member and past president of our local horticultural society. The Women’s Post newspaper published in Toronto and The Hamilton Spectator have both published garden and environment related articles of mine during the last several years.

May 28, 2006

The first whiff of the earth waking up is balm to my winter weary spirit. I’m lured into the garden even when the trees are still bare of leaf and patches of snow mold cover the lawn. I gingerly make my way around the garden, treading carefully on the squishy turf, knowing full well that I shouldn’t be walking on the grass just yet. I scan the flower beds for any sign of life and am rewarded by the sweet fragrance of a clump of snowdrops partially hidden under a scraggly hydrangea bush. I wish I’d been wise enough to plant these sprightly harbingers of spring closer to the house where I would have more of an opportunity to enjoy them. Perhaps, I’ll move them when they’ve finished blooming.

Our sense of smell is such an integral part of our makeup and our connection to the world around us, nevertheless we speak and write of it so little in comparison to the other four senses. Perhaps it’s because scent often defies description. We can’t find the proper words and so must resort to comparison and simile.

Fragrance pulls at our heart strings and evokes memories of past pleasures and no more so than in a garden. We can’t put a finger on it or put a name to it, but we know that whatever aroma we have caught a whiff of reminds us of grandma’s garden in June when the peonies were in the full flush of bloom. We are then transported back to another time and place and happily take a stroll down memory lane, and we stop to smell the flowers.

Yet, so often our own gardens are overlooked as a source of fragrance. Keeping that in mind, I’ve tried to make my garden one of heavenly scents and so a magical place, one that charms and entices me to sit silently for awhile. I think of myself as a seeker of scents when choosing plants for my garden, searching out plant material that has either the sweet, fruity or spicy fragrances that I prefer. In spring there are the crocus, narcissus ‘Thalia’, species tulips, hyacinths, iris reticulata, lily of the valley, violets and my favourite, pansies.

Later, iris that smell just like grape popsicles, Japanese silk tree lilac, New Dawn climbing roses, water lilies, sweet peas, and Asiatic lilies mingle their scent with herbs such as valerian, sage, thyme and lemon balm to make the entire garden a cornucopia of delightful fragrance. On the patio, sweet alyssum, white petunias, calendulas, heliotrope, white nicotiana, and various scented geraniums beg to be fingered or brushed against in order to release their delicious aroma and I’m always more than happy to oblige.

Later still, the listless dog days of August are enlivened by the phlox, day lilies and sweet autumn clematis. And even in fall, when I’m planting bulbs for the following year, the promise of the scent hidden within them gives me hope that spring will come again. The sense of smell is by its very nature both idiosyncratic and personal. We each have our preferences and the plants I have mentioned may not be at all to another person’s liking. That’s where the sniff test comes in. For the most part, the time to choose fragrant plants is when they are in flower. Mind you, any part of the plant can be fragrant: leaves, stems, bark, roots, seed heads depending on which plant you are searching for.

So feel free to stop and smell the roses, lilies, peonies, lilacs. Only take care and watch out for the bees and other insects that have made it there before you. After all, Mother Nature created scent in plants to attract insects for pollination and reproduction; we humans are only along for the fun of the ride.

Fragrance addict that I am, I’ve made sure that scent doesn’t live in the garden alone but that it follows me indoors via open windows and cut flower bouquets. A small, cut glass vase filled with sweet peas will perfume an entire room where I sit and think about my grandmother and her garden of fragrant old-fashioned flowers.

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