AS OCTOBER draws near, the garden nudges us to appreciate the changing of the seasons. As if the low-slanting sun and early darkness aren’t visceral enough reminders that another summer is over.
Which is why a nose tickle of fragrance now is as revelatory of the garden’s life and health as the first crocus in spring. Autumn scents are more ephemeral than the headier perfumes of summer. We need to stick our noses up into the air like a wolf testing the breeze to detect the sweet scent of phlox wafting past. Or scuff our feet in fallen katsura leaves to inhale their comforting, homey scent of brown sugar and cinnamon.
Autumn scents are well worth seeking out, not only because they’re exquisitely evocative of a season other than the one we’re in, but also because the sweetest, strongest scents can suspend, for a few moments anyway, the realities of the winter we know is headed our way.
Smell is our most primitive sense, located along with memory and creativity in an ancient part of the brain. So how we experience fragrance is even more personal and individual than how we see color. Add to that the fact that scent varies significantly between plants, even ones of the same kind that look similar to each other. If you’re buying a plant for its fragrance, be sure to check out its scent before purchasing. Scent is as individual for the plant as it is for the person who smells it.
Even with those mysteries acknowledged, most everyone is attracted to some scented plants. The katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) has heart-shaped leaves that turn golden as they release their cinnamon-rich, sugary, pumpkin-pie scent. And if you don’t have space in your garden for the typical katsura, which can grow 40 feet high and 25 feet wide, consider the weeping form or the columnar cultivar ‘Red Fox.’
Because autumn scents are subtle, layering fragrance from trees to perennials is most effective. My hands-down favorite shrub for late scent is Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance.’ Its highly fragrant, tropical-smelling clusters of blush pink flowers bloom from spring through late fall. The shrub is semi-deciduous, compact and so dependable it earned Great Plant Picks status.
Closer to the ground, you can add scents of honey, clove and vanilla with late-blooming phlox and the perennial Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ or the similar cultivar ‘Brunette.’ The common name is bugbane; botanically it used to be known as cimicifuga. By any moniker, the lacy purple/black foliage is spectacular over a long season, and especially when topped in early fall with tall, curvy wands of white flowers that smell like honey. Combine them with the spicily scented flowers of Phlox paniculata ‘David,’ one of the latest bloomers in the phlox clan. ‘David’s’ snowy flowers play beautifully off the deep, dark leaves of the bugbane.
These four plants are a good start toward making autumn in your garden as sensuous and satisfying as spring and summer. But there are plenty more good choices for fall fragrance to prompt a stroll through your neighborhood nursery, sniffing as you go.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.