Scents and Sensibility

Those who know me would agree that launching my blog with a Jane Austen pun is especially apt; for years I have lusted after old English country houses with their sprawling gardens and intricate histories. The house and the history are (sadly) unlikely; but, a garden I will grow.

This year I set about creating a scented garden, a garden where different scents would evoke a variety of emotions: joy, contentment, arousal, freshness… In my enthusiasm to amass a collection of plants with fragrances that waft (I found a comprehensive list here), I ignored the common sense notion that two strong fragrances need not blend harmoniously; instead, like strong personalities, they might jostle for attention.

Blooming this late in the year in my garden are a Charles Grimaldi brugmansia and tuberose. A single stalk of double flowered tuberose ‘The Pearl’, with a fragrance of “jasmine, coconut and warm skin“, scents the entire backyard. An astonishingly seductive fragrance from a deceptively innocent-looking flower! No wonder the flowers are strewn on bridal beds in India!

Polianthes tuberosa 'The Pearl' glowing in the morning sun
Polianthes tuberosa ‘The Pearl’ glowing in the morning sun

The brugmansia, by contrast, has a delicate, floral fragrance like Ivory soap, someone said. It produces huge, drooping, yellow flowers, that gracefully age to an orange-yellow, with several blooming at once. It’s funny how mismatched the fragrances of these two flowers are to their appearances!

Huge blooms of Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'
Huge blooms of Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’

Planting: I planted the tuberose bulbs (purchased here, an excellent source for bulbs) and the Charles Grimaldi (from here, one of my favorite local nurseries) this year. Both being heavy feeders, I planted them with generous amounts of bone meal, chicken manure and compost mixed in well with my heavy clay soil. The bulbs didn’t get any more fertilizer. The brugmansia got occasional feedings of dilute fish-seaweed fertilizer and earthworm castings.

Tuberose, which originated either in Mexico or in South Asia (origins are being debated furiously), is a tropical plant and so far its winter hardiness here in zone 9b, Sunset zone 17, is untested. I will be able to report back next year. Not too many people grow them here, although they were once (about 100 years ago) very popular. My learning is that just a few tuberoses sprinkled here and there can add a whole new dimension, that of scent, to a garden, and it is quite beautiful too.

The brugmansia, which is far more common, and featured in gardening books to create a “tropical” look, is a vigorous grower. I haven’t pruned it yet and it is 5 feet tall. I don’t know if it will survive this winter, and what I would do with it if it does; it’s overwhelming the space where it’s planted.

And, finally, the lesson from my scented garden experiment: as romantic as the idea is, it requires considerable planning and a lot of cooperation from the weather gods to be truly successful. For best effect, space the strongest contenders quite far away from each other and plan so that different plants reach blooming peaks at different times of the year; this can be quite hard to control.

Have you tried your hand at a scented garden? Was it successful? And have you grown tuberose? Did they come back from the bulbs the following year?

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