Aah, fragrance!

Aah, fragrance! That elusive, evocative, and deeply personal quality of flowers that is so often unexplored in most gardens. Right now, in high summer, my garden is offering up an olfactory buffet.

Coming home after dinner with an old friend from my undergrad days, we were stopped mid-conversation with the the distinctive scent of night blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum, now in full bloom. It was a happy coincidence; years ago this very friend had reminisced about the intoxicating fragrance of Queen of the Night or Hasna Hena as it is known in our native Bengal. I am easily enticed and immediately had a tiny plant in a 4 inch pot shipped to me. After fours years of unimpressive performance, the plant, now a robust 7 feet tall shrub, has finally started to make its presence felt. And how! I haven’t walked around the neighborhood at night to see how far its fragrance wafted, but at least fifty feet away it hung heavily in the air – you couldn’t breathe without smelling it. I watched with a sense of pride and triumph as my friend closed her eyes and took a deep breath, a wave of memories washing over her. Because that’s the thing, it’s so much more than the scent itself, a slight whiff can transport you to the time and place and person where the fragrance left its imprint.

Another jasmine in bloom now in my garden, a true jasmine in this case, is the Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac. I grow a few varieties; Mysore Mulli is the one with the strongest fragrance, Belle of India, the most beautiful. Heady, sensuous and redolent of warm, languorous evenings. My one potted bush has really outdone herself this year. To step out onto the patio is to be enveloped in its fragrance. Where and when I grew up, movies at the cinema were a special event – the ladies dressed up in bright silk sarees, a touch of gold jewelry, and the traditional garland of jasmine pinned to long braided hair. I imagine whispered conversations among the couples in the darkened theater, the scent of jasmine wordlessly promising more pleasures to come.

3000 words

Since a picture is worth a thousand words…

A few pictures of my garden from earlier this year:IMG_20170508_184833Bottom center are a couple of my potted citrus trees, Oroblanco grapefruit and Moro blood orange. Right behind them are three of my potted figs. All of them have fruit now and it’s surprising to see the variety of colors, shapes and sizes of figs especially if you’re only used to store bought fresh figs which are likely Mission.

The roses are just coming into bloom, the two poppies – red and black Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’ and pink Eschscholzia californica ‘Rose Chiffon’ are in peak bloom, bordered along the front by blue Penstemon heterphyllus ‘Margarita BOP’.IMG_20170614_180432A pillar of pink dipladenia ‘Pretty in Pink’, blooming in shades of pink. The flowers have an unmistakable vanilla fragrance, which does not waft, but it’s there if you inhale deeply enough. Along the front of the picture leaves aglow in the sun is my pomegranate ‘Parfianka’. This tree is surrounded by heavenly smelling Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’. The scarlet blossoms of the pomegranate are beautifully framed by the swaying wands of the lavender.IMG_20170508_184845My showpiece flower bed in front of the fountain in a riot of color with butter yellow fragrant Julia Child roses, tall and elegant magenta Agrostemma githago ‘Milas’, a short, inky dark iris ‘Wild Wings’ with velvety black falls, nonstop bloom machine Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Peach’, red geum ‘Blazing Sunset’, another prolific bloomer violet Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’ and tall white Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Amelia’.

The fountain behind the bed works, probably, but after the long, long California drought, we have resisted the temptation to fill it up and turn it on again. For the flowers, I didn’t start with a color palette in mind, which is obvious! I simply bought the plants I liked and made room for them. The beds are full to bursting now and most plants need drastic thinning but I haven’t had the heart nor the energy to do it.


The Last Passion

For those stopping by to read about a tragic romance – my apologies. Here, I am placing my bets on some very fruitful passion next year!

Recently, I made a solemn promise to myself and everyone I know who cares (and some who don’t) about my garden, that I would not be buying any more plants this year. Technically speaking, I have kept my promise: the plants I bought today are not going to be delivered until next spring.

I have been fascinated with passionflowers for some time now – they are the epitome of exotic, tropical flora. I suspect the “passion” in the name had something to do with it too! I imagined these flowers to be capable of igniting passion, until research revealed the more somber origin of the name. Nevertheless, I had to have some passionflowers in the garden, preferably with fragrant flowers and delicious fruit.

Earlier this year, I started a few seeds of passionflower (exact species forgotten or never specified). I did all that the online forums recommended: soaking them for days in fermenting orange juice. The rationale behind this approach is that in nature, the acidic pulp surrounding the seeds helps to soften the outer seed coat and facilitate germination. People noted that seeds from fresh passionfruit germinate readily since some of the pulp clings to the seeds. I have never seen passionfruit being sold in the produce sections of the groceries I frequent, so I had to rely on mail order seeds. Anyway, none of the seeds germinated and my domestic popularity ratings took a serious beating thanks to the bowl of rotting and frothing orange juice.

Passiflora 'Mission Dolores', from Far Out Flora
Passiflora ‘Mission Dolores’
Source: Far Out Flora
Leaves of Passiflora 'Mission Dolores' from Flickr
Leaves of Passiflora ‘Mission Dolores’
Source: Flickr

With the active gardening months now done and all the bulbs in the ground, I was feeling a sense of vacuum. I found the online store Grassy Knoll Exotics, based in Oregon, that specializes in Passiflora. They even have ‘Mission Dolores’, a rare and prized hybrid of Passiflora parritae and Passiflora antioquiensis, which not only has gorgeous flowers (see picture above) but also tasty fruit. This went in my cart, along with Passiflora edulis ‘Frederick’ which also produces good fruit without needing another plant to pollinate it. I hope to be able to provide a taste review on these by this time next year.

Passiflora Edulis 'Frederick'
Passiflora edulis ‘Frederick’
Source: Trade Winds Fruit

And with that, I really have to reign in my plant passion for the year!

Have you grown passionflowers? What has been your experience? What conditions do they thrive under?

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?