Fragrant foliage fills the air and the spirit with refreshing aroma
Perfume is described as having base notes, which linger longest on the skin, and top notes for a blast of more intense fragrance. The idea of cedar and cinnamon base notes with heady neroli or vanilla as top notes adds to the mystery (and, yes, the price) of perfume.
While my nose can't readily distinguish such subtleties in a few ounces of liquid, there's nothing more glorious than inhaling layers of fragrance while standing in the middle of the garden on a warm summer afternoon. Or better yet, breathing it all in while reclining in a chaise. While it's the intoxicating sweetness of roses and lilies that nearly knocks you to your knees, the scents emanating from aromatic foliage linger on the air and invade your very pores.
Sniff once, and inhale jasmine or mock orange or daphne or whatever is starring at the moment. Sniff two, three, four times, walk about and touch the plants, and you realize that foliage has a much broader range of scents than flowers, including spicy, fruity, tangy and pleasantly pungent. Pull on a lavender wand or crush a rosemary twig and you release scent into the air. Hold these leaves to your nose and inhale deeply for a visceral sense of plants as renewal, as medicine, as food and also as sinus clearer.
When you rely on foliage for perfume, it isn't necessary to orchestrate bloom, because leaves clothe the garden for so many months of the year. Many scented foliage plants are drought-resistant, too, and as attractive to butterflies, bees and beneficial insects as they are to us. Best of all, the oil in aromatic leaves protects them from deer and insects, which is why such plants were our first and perhaps still most effective insect repellents. Many aromatic foliage plants look as good as they smell, often with gray and silvery leaves like the curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) or variegated as with some kinds of scented-leafed geraniums.
Now in bloomGolden pineapple sage (Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious') has glowing golden leaves with a strong, fruity smell when brushed or crushed. Hot red little tubular flowers dot the plant in summer, although you'll have to fight off the hummingbirds to see them. This sage grows 3 feet tall and wide, and its leaves look pretty topping off a tall glass of ice tea.
The mystery to me remains how these geraniums can so effectively mimic chocolate, ginger and peppermint, or how the soft leaves of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) smell just like ripe fruit. True, curry is a mix of spices, yet rub a sprig of the curry plant and you have all the complex redolence of an Indian restaurant.
How can these little herbaceous plants play such games?
Here's the theory: Many of these plants grow wild in inhospitably dry and rocky environments. They survive such harsh conditions in part by masquerading as prickly roses, spices, lemons, limes or other snacks less desirable than the leafy plants they really are. The leaves closest to the flowers are usually the most intensely fragrant of all, which attracts pollinators to the plants, helping them endure and proliferate.
Some people feel queasy at the heavy scent of lilies or roses. Fragrant foliage is ideal for those easily overwhelmed because you mostly release it yourself by brushing, crushing or stepping. Which gives clues on where best to use these plants. To encourage hands-on encounters or even brushing past, plant lavender, rosemary, catmint or Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) along pathways, near gates, porches and patios. Bee balm (Monarda didyma), with its fruity aroma, and licorice-scented anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) are good choices for front of the border or along paths.
To appreciate scented foliage every day, plant tiny-leafed Coriscan mint (Mentha requienii) or creeping thymes between stepping stones and lapping the edges of walkways. A single step releases the aromas of mint, lemon or caraway from these tough, unassuming little groundcovers. I've never planted a garden yet that didn't include lemon balm and lemon verbena, to rub between the fingers as well as snip to float in a glass of ice tea or lemonade. And if you use scented candles in the winter, consider celebrating summer with pots of your favorite scented geraniums, including citronella, to keep the bugs away. Stick pots of these little wonders by the front door, on the back deck and even on the dining room table for frequent hits of soul-stirring fragrance.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is email@example.com.