"Scented leaves"

Scented leaves can evoke memories and uplift the soul.
Sunday, 24 April 2022     

Rose form of scent-leaf Pelargonium

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.

 Reader Comments

1/10  Margaret - 3777 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 25 April 2011

I love scented leaves too! The first thing I do when I come across a plant I dont know in someone else's garden is to pick a leaf and crush it between my fingers to see if it has a perfume. thanks again for your interesting and informative blogs. Margaret

Thanks, Margaret. There are so many scented leaves around; makes gardening interesting! Deirdre

2/10  Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 25 April 2011

Still raining! Yesterday I walked through a carpet of colourful, fallen leaves from our Katsura tree. Stirring the leaves released a strong smell of toffee - always a pleasant surprise at this time of the year. Autumn has arrived now in all its glory and its a beautiful time. Peta

Thanks, Peta. I agree that this is a wonderful time of year - so much colour in the garden. The Katsura tree sounds nice with those toffee-scented leaves! Deirdre

3/10  Therese - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Over Easter I had a vase of freshly picked basil in the kitchen & there were many comments on the delicious aroma! One of my very favourite plants but I never thought of putting it in a vase! Deirdre

4/10  Beverley - 2113 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Over Easter we had 2 little dogs visiting us; of course they loved to run around all over the garden. When they came back inside they smelt lovely. It was the salvias ! I have lots of the low growing ones i.e. gregii. They come in so many shades of pink, blue, red and pumpkin. Beverley.

Thanks, Beverley.I hadn't realised those ones had a nice scent! Deirdre

5/10  Lois - 3551 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Happy Easter everyone! just back from visiting family and the salvia growing throughout the garden was really gorgeous, so many colours and they were really loving the extra water this year. now I need to track down some for my own garden. Just adore the red and white ones, and purples. wow

6/10  Rae - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 April 2011

We purchased a citronella scented pelargonium (mozzie blocker!) 11+ years ago. We no longer have it but my parents took cuttings and we have recently taken cuttings from theirs. So 3 houses on (plus 2 houses from when Mum & Dad took their cutting) it brings back memories of our first home!

Thanks, Rae, that is nice that you have it back again! Deirdre

7/10  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 28 April 2011

Love fragrant foliage also. Am never sure about the pelagonium, with rose scent - it does not seem true to me, but then, maybe I have not had the right variety! I probably am odd, but enjoy the smell of leaves of chrysanths and marigolds.

I think there are a few different rose geraniums - mine is quite 'rosy'-smelling. The plants you mention do have an astringent scent that is not unpleasant to me. Deirdre

8/10  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 April 2022

I did not think I have many scented leaves, but upon reading your blog, I am reminded of the peppermint geranium, plectranthus barbatus and rosemary. Mostly my perfume in the garden comes from flowers. However my garlic chives, tulbaghia and orange lantana (not the weedy one) all provide a scent of some kind. Yes some of the scents are pungent to a degree! Deirdre

9/10  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 April 2022

Tetradenia riparia (sometimes called nutmeg bush) has wonderful smelling foliage, and attractive flowers. It is in the Lamiaceae family, from South Africa, and is very easy to propagate and grow. I bought mine from the botanic gardens in Sydney. I also have Tagetes lemonii, and love the smell it emits when I brush past. Lemon verbena, as you mention, has a strong lemon smell, but it is a slightly sweet variation of this smell. Thanks for reminding me of the nutmeg bush, Bren! I managed to buy one at our garden club ramble stall today! Deirdre

10/10  Geoff - 2323 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 April 2022

Thanks for those thoughts, Deirdre. I also really enjoy scented plants. Lemon verbena is perhaps my favourite scented plant and I have it where you have to brush against it when going along a major pathway. I also have a story about the peppermint geranium. Some years ago I was out at a meeting and my wife thought she heard someone outside. When I came home I could smell the peppermint fragrance, knowing that someone or something had actually been in the garden, crushing some of the leaves. What an intriguing story about the peppermint geranium! Deirdre

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