Scents of the South

From magnolias to gardenias, these fragrant plants evoke sweet memories.
Charlie Thigpen / Photography Jean Allsopp, Van Chaplin, Joseph De Sciose

All gardens are created to stimulate the senses, but they are truly special when you can enjoy them with your eyes closed. Breathe deeply, and take in the fragrances that flowers release. Inhale the perfume that sifts through magnolias and permeates our steamy Southern landscape.

Sure, our Northern cousins may brag about their fragrant lilacs that bloom in late spring and early summer, but we Southerners can grow a host of plants that will smell sweet throughout the year. Even in late winter, while those to the North are still shoveling snow, we can enjoy intoxicating drifts of daphne and winter honeysuckle that roll in on cool, crisp breezes. Now, open your eyes, and take a look at a few of our favorite plants that scent the region.

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
These are trees of substance. The big-bodied natives look like green dinosaurs scattered across the landscape. Their large, thick, evergreen foliage rattles as arching limbs slowly sway. Old, mature specimens cloaked in Spanish moss stand as icons in historic cities such as Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah. This tree's magnificent blossoms are so special that both Louisiana and Mississippi selected the magnolia as their state flower. In the spring and summer, the tips of the branches produce saucer-size blooms with a lemony-sweet scent. Magnolias can reach 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide, preferring full sun or partial shade. (They will grow in shade, but plants will be leggy and blooms will be sparse.)

If you have a small yard and want a magnolia, try a selection called 'Little Gem.' Growing about 30 feet tall and 10 feet wide, it has a neat, compact shape and blooms constantly throughout summer and into fall.

Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
This native vine appears everywhere across the South yet remains rather inconspicuous until early spring when it bursts forth with bright yellow blooms. Small funnel-shaped flowers team up to produce a sweet perfume.

The state flower of South Carolina, jessamine works well in the home landscape to cover fences and climb arbors or other overhead structures. Don't plant near children's play areas, because all parts of the plant are poisonous. It prefers full sun or partial shade. Those set in dense shade will not bloom well.

Wisteria (Wisteria sp.)
One day, this plant just might gobble up the South. Though it's extremely vigorous and some types are invasive, people keep planting it in their gardens. They can't resist its lovely white or purple blooms. Each spring, long clusters of pea-shaped flowers hang from trees, arbors, or anything else the vine can reach. If you must plant wisteria, you may want to purchase American wisteria (W. frutescens). This native is not as aggressive as Chinese wisteria (W. sinensis) or Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda).

Chinese wisteria isn't as fragrant as American wisteria, and it is extremely invasive. It has escaped cultivation and consumed woodlands in the Lower South. If you plant Chinese wisteria, place it where you can confine it to a certain area. It works well in large containers and can be trained to grow in a tree form.

Japanese wisteria sports 18-inch-long flower clusters that open gradually, so it has a long bloom time. Like Chinese wisteria, it can be aggressive, so be careful where you plant it.

None of the wisteria vines are picky about soil. They will grow anywhere as long as they have good drainage. In alkaline soils, you may have to treat plants with iron chelate or iron sulfate to keep them green. Don't fertilize them too much, or you'll get all vines and foliage with no blooms.

Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)
This evergreen vine is sometimes referred to as star jasmine because of the shape of its white blooms. In summer, the sweet-smelling flowers can be seen encircling mailboxes, trellises, arbors, and fences. The versatile vine also works well as a ground cover. It will grow in sun or shade and performs best in a moist, well-drained soil. Confederate jasmine is not hardy in the Upper South and parts of the Middle South.

Four O'Clock (Mirabilis jalapa)
This super-fragrant perennial looks more like a shrub; it has a bushy habit and will grow 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. In the Upper South, it should be treated as an annual. Four o'clocks begin to bloom in midsummer and will flower until the first frost. The trumpet-shaped blooms are fuchsia, yellow, or white with variations of shades in between. They open in midafternoon and stay open all night. Plant them close to a patio, where you can enjoy their fragrance in the evening.

Four o'clocks grow in full sun and partial shade. They aren't too picky about soil and need very little water. The best and cheapest way to grow four o'clocks is to direct-sow them. They reseed and can be weedy, so give them room to grow.

Common Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides)
This classic Southern shrub looks rather ordinary most of the year, but in early summer its pearly white buds unfurl to resemble twirled seashells. These buds transform into thick, waxy flowers, and the blooms release an intoxicating aroma that can perfume an entire garden.

Common gardenias reach 6 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide. There are smaller ones, such as 'Radicans,' that stand only about 1 foot tall and 3 feet wide. This low-growing selection makes a neat ground cover. 'Klein's Hardy' was developed for colder climes; it withstands temperatures down to 0 degrees and grows only about 3 feet high.

All gardenias like rich soil, light shade, and frequent watering. They are susceptible to aphids, mealybugs, mites, and whiteflies, which can be controlled or eliminated by spraying plants with a horticultural oil such as Ultra-Fine. You might have to work a little to keep gardenias insect free, but their wonderful aroma is worth the fuss.

Fragrance through the Seasons

  • Spring: banana shrub (Michelia figo), Carolina jessamine (G. sempervirens), Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), and wisteria (W. frutescens)
  • Summer: butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.), four o'clocks (M. jalapa), common gardenia (G. jasminoides), rose (Rosa sp.), and moonflower (Ipomoea alba), Confederate jasmine (T. jasminoides)
  • Fall: thorny elaeagnus (Elaeagnus pungens), gingerlily (Hedychium coronárium), holly osmanthus (Osmanthus heterophyllus), and sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora)
  • Winter: winter daphne (Daphne odora), winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), and wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox)

 

"Scents of the South" is from the Favorites 2004 issue of Southern Living.