Garden Writer Tovah Martin Beats the Winter Doldrums with Scented Plants

"One word of caution: One person's perfume is another's stench."

January 29, 1998

On this day, The Courier-Journal out of Louisville, Kentucky, ran an article by Tovah Martin called “Winter is the Best Time for Scented Plants.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“In spring, there are violets, but who wants to crawl around sniffing flowers 2 inches above the ground?

In summer, roses abound, but close encounters with rosebuds can be thorny.

No, winter is when scents are sampled to the best advantage.

With a horde of houseplants huddled on the windowsill, nostrils can have a field day. 

Fragrant plants, however, have one slight drawback: They're not very showy. 

The blooms of most fragrant flowering plants are a subdued cream, white, or yellow in color and rather diminutive in size. 

Take heliotrope, for example. It smells like a comforting combination of baby powder, mulled cider, and vanilla. The flowers are white or purple in dense clusters, and they bloom lustily in any bright, south-facing window, if you can keep the white fly at bay. 

Or try a hoya in an east or west window; the blossom umbels smell something like freshly baked croissants. 

If you prefer something along the line of apricots warm from the oven, try Osmanthus fragrans, the sweet olive. 

If you crave the citrus scent but don't have a sizable south window, consider a mock orange, Pittosporum tobira, instead. It tolerates low light and produces nosegays of creamy flowers amid laurel-like leaves.

Several jasmines (especially Jasminum sambac Maid of Orleans, J. nitidum, and J. tortuosum) are easy houseplants. They exude deep, romantic, come-hither-type perfumes with a hint of musk thrown in after dark. 

If you like the idea but not the musky note, go for a jasmine imitator. Trachelospermum asiaticum is known as pinwheel jasmine but bears no kinship to jasmine whatsoever. It looks like jasmine with vining branches studded by umbels of star-shaped blossoms with twisted petals. And it smells like jasmine, without the questionable undertones. 

One word of caution before you delve into the realms of fragrant plants: If you can, try to sample potential perfumed roommates before adopting them. 

One person's perfume is another's stench. 

Even certain jasmines can rub some people the wrong way. 

British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll spent a night abroad and sent her lady's maid searching for a dead rat. It turned out to be Jasminum polyanthum, growing by the window.” 

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Jasmine | Jasminum sambac Maid of Orleans
Jasmine | Jasminum sambac Maid of Orleans

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