What is the sweetest flower of all? Answer that question and I can probably tell what's growing in your garden. Of all our senses, I think smell is the one most closely linked to memory. A single whiff of a flower instantly transports you back to a time and place when you encountered it as a child.
Flowers are fragrant for the same reason that women who want babies dab vanilla extract behind their ears on that special night. (Chicago Cubs fans use mustard.) They crave pollination in order to propagate the species. The fragrance tells pollinating insects and animals that a bloom is open for business and also leads them to the target.
Sweet-scented flowers manipulate people too. We may not pollinate blossoms, but their perfume makes them so desirable that we buy them at garden centers and plant them in our gardens. The constant demand keeps growers propagating more of them to sell.
Of course, not all fragrant flowers smell sweet. For example, the blooms of voodoo lilies (Amorphophallus sp.) smell like carrion. This attracts flies, their chief pollinators. After it's pollinated, the bloom no longer stinks. I'll bet hyenas would love voodoo lilies, but our homeowners association prohibits hyenas.
Grumpy's Top Ten Let's have a little fun here. I'm going to name my 10 favorite fragrant flowers. Let's see how well my list matches yours. Tell me what favorites I left out and why they're special to you.
1. Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) -- In Grumpy's opinion, gardenia possesses the most powerfully sweet fragrance of any flower. Place one to your nose and you'll swoon.
2. Winter daphne (Daphne odora) -- Few shrubs bloom towards the end of winter, but when this does, it literally fills the garden with its citrusy-spice scent. You often smell it before you see it.
3. Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) -- Yes, it's a rampant weed in many places, but what other vine flaunts pendant chains of blue-violet flowers so sweet that they'll turn your head around?
4. Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) -- One of the South's two iconic, native, large trees (live oak is the other), Southern magnolia adorns its branches with huge white blossoms that smell like heaven must. In towns where magnolias line the streets, you can smell the trees the moment you step out of the front door.
5. Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) -- I include this as a nod to my Northern friends, many of whom remember the perfume of lilacs growing in the gardens of their parents and grandparents. Common lilac doesn't bloom well in the South, unfortunately, and the new heat-tolerant hybrids simply aren't as fragrant as the old-fashioned kind.
6. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) -- No doubt, this vine is a terrible weed. No doubt, too, that the sweet, pure fragrance of its flowers tempts you to forgive it. Honeysuckle smells like spring. Ever suck nectar from the tip of the bloom?
7. Bearded iris (Iris hybrid) -- My mother's favorite flower. So many colors, such tough plants, such powerful fragrance. Break off a plump flower bud and it still opens.
8. Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) -- When it's blooming, I don't think there's a space so large this vine can't fill it with sweetness.
9. Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) -- It blooms at Easter only because growers force it to. Plant it in your garden and it'll knock you down with fragrance each summer.
10. Sweet shrub aka Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) -- Its brownish-red flowers aren't much to look at. But who cares when they smell like Juicy Fruit gum? Not all sweet shrubs smell like this, so take a whiff of the blooms before you buy.
Hear Grumpy Speak! Be at the Douglasville, Georgia Courthouse next Saturday, June 7, at 2 PM, where, in addition to being tried for Crimes Against Humanity, Grumpy will speak at the annual Penny McHenry Hydrangea Festival. You can also tour private, local gardens! For more info, call 770-949-4090. Celebrate Douglas County Georgia