Weeding on my hands and knees recently, I was aware of a beautiful rose perfume. I don't grow any roses but I had brushed against the foliage of my rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) growing nearby, and I was instantly transported to the garden of my childhood, where plump bushes of this plant grew along little winding stone paths. I have a passion for plants with fragrant leaves in the garden, and part of their charm is that the memories they conjure up of other times and places. The ability of fragrances to evoke old memories and feelings even years later is a well-established phenomenon, as the olfactory nerve is located in the brain near to areas that deal with memory and emotion. On the basis of this, aromatherapists use plant oils for healing purposes. I know nothing of this doctrine, but from my own experience, inhaling the fragrance of a leaf crushed between one's fingers as one wanders in a garden can be uplifting for the soul, and adding scented foliage to our gardens can certainly give it an extra dimension.
The old-fashioned scent-leaf geraniums (Pelargonium species and cultivars) capture a truly amazing array of fragrances, so intriguingly approximating what they are mimicking. Rose, lemon, ginger, peppermint, nutmeg, apple and even coconut scented ones exist! The leaves themselves are attractive and have a variety of appealing shapes and textures: the soft velvet of the peppermint geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum) is particularly irresistible. They are delightfully old-fashioned plants but they have a place in modern gardens as they form sturdy and decorative shrubs in hot, dry places and also grow well in pots. As an added bonus, many of them have pretty blooms, usually pink, white or lavender. The leaves can also be used in posies, baths and cooking, or dried for sachets or potpourri. True geranium Geranium macrorrhizum, one of the best perennial geraniums for Sydney, making an excellent groundcover even in dry shade, also has distinctively scented (and good-looking!) foliage along with its pretty flowers in spring.
Salvia contain several species with pleasantly fragrant leaves. Salvia dorisiana has large hairy foliage that smells like a fresh fruit salad, as does the winter-blooming Salvia gravida, whilst Salvia elegans has delicious pineapple-flavoured leaves. I prefer to grow the cultivar 'Golden Delicious' of this plant, with its lovely chartreuse foliage, as it tends not to be as rampageous as the plain green sort. The mountain marigold (Tagetes lemmonii) has a strong pungent scent of passionfruit - loathed by some people but I enjoy it.
The odour of citrus is very refreshing and many plants have a lemony scent to their leaves - lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus, which forms a robust, arching clump of leaves and is invaluable for Asian cooking), lemon (or lime) verbena (Aloysia triphylla), citrus trees themselves and native plants such as Prostanthera, Erisotemon and Backhousia citriodora.
Not all scents are sweet or food related! Other leaves in my garden are quite spicy, musky or even 'woody'. The tall, blue-flowered Plectranthus barbatus - in bloom now - has leaves with an astringent smell. The false cardamon ( Alpinia nutans has large, arching leaves with a brisk scent. Wormwood (Artemisia species) also have an unusual, musty smell, but again I enjoy it as it too reminds me of my parents' garden, where - in a less humid climate - it grew much better than it does for me!
There are many different sorts of flavoured mint plants, and these were very popular in decades past. I recall eau-de-cologne mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata) as being one of the most restorative perfumes in my parents' garden, as was the quaint apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) with its funny woolly leaves. There was even a mint that smelt like one of those 'after dinner' chocolate mints, de rigueur at 1970s dinner parties (Mentha x piperita 'Chocolate'). Many of these mint plants went berserk if planted in the garden, so were best confined to a pot, and I'd like to grow all of these again one day.
I love the smell of culinary herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and sage, and often carry a leaf of these with me as I walk in the garden. They always remind me of a summer holiday in Italy, where these herbs grew on a sun-baked bank along the driveway to an old farmhouse where we stayed, and we were allowed to pick them for cooking. Their aromatic oils seemed to be intensified by the Mediterranean climate.
Gardeners don't need time-machines to travel back in time when we have an array of scented foliage plants growing in our yards!
Blog first posted 24 April 2011; updated 24 April 2022.
Early morning in the May garden
22 May 22
Much can be seen during a stroll in the garden now.
15 May 22
I enjoy seeing carpets of fallen leaves and flowers in autumn.
Happy Mother's Day
08 May 22
My mother's garden has been hugely influential for me.
Jewels of May
01 May 22
Some lovely flowers bloom this month
24 Apr 22
Scented leaves can evoke memories and uplift the soul.