As we garden we often spend so much time focused on the visual that it can be all too easy to overlook one of the other great gifts that tending plants gives us – their incredible scent. In fact, upon the advent of colour printing, much of modern breeding work with even the most highly scented species started to prioritise appearance above all else. This was to allow plants to vie for attention on the pages of gardening catalogues. It meant that many modern roses, sweet peas and even some jasmine cultivars began to lose their fragrance. To most of us, that’s nothing short of a travesty.
While the tide may finally be shifting on this trend, there is one group of aromatic plants that have always been selected for the very best perfume, resulting in some truly spectacular results. Fortunately, they are easy to grow, have a long season of interest and are very affordable: scented pelargoniums.
Hailing from the rugged, dry landscapes of southern Africa, pelargonium evolved the ability to produce a range of highly scented, insect-repellent compounds that waft out of the plants’ leaves to create a sort of protective cloud. While these defence chemicals exist to repel bugs, they draw humans in with the intense fragrances of peppermint, lemon, pine and rose. A combination of the wonders of nature and some clever breeding means that this genus has a chameleon-like ability to perfectly mimic the scents we normally associate with other plants. Pure magic.
Producing the scent in their leaves, rather than flowers, means pelargoniums allow you to bask in their beguiling fragrances for a longer season. Instead of a mere fortnight or two in the summer, they will kick out aroma all year if treated right. For these frost-tender plants this means outdoors in sunny beds, borders or pots of well-drained soil during the summer, and indoors on a bright windowsill all winter. No garden? No problem. They make excellent, year-round houseplants, where higher temperatures may actually mean even more intense fragrance. They are pretty drought- tolerant, too, so make a good candidate for those of us who occasionally forget the odd watering.
My favourite of all is a quirky cultivar, ‘Cola Bottles’, which has a fragrance that offers an instant flashback to the pick’n’mix sweets of my childhood, combining citrus and spice notes to perfectly mimic the e-numbertastic candy. However, if you are a purist, you could go down the species route. P tomentosum emits a powerfully refreshing burst of coolness peppermint, while P fragrans kicks out the foresty scent of pine. If it’s fizzy lemon sherbet you want, P crispum is your best bet, while the cultivar ‘Attar of Roses’ is like eating Turkish delight in Barbara Cartland’s boudoir. Finally, for medallion men out there, ‘Old Spice’ will take you back to the 70s in a single whiff. Grow half a dozen together in a warm spot and I can promise you hours of olfactory delight all year long for less than half the price of a rose bush.