Fragrant native shrubs for spring and summer

MD-gardening column 2x-051815

The Pinxterbloom azalea, a native shrub, looks less showy than those fiery azaleas one sees in many gardens at this time of year, but it has something they don’t —- a lovely smell. Also, a fragile, delicate beauty typical of wild flowers.

Open your window on an early morning in spring and a great symphony of fragrance greets the nose. Cultivated plants play their part in the great flowering of scent that marks nature’s reawakening after winter. But native plants and little wild things as humble as clover and dandelions provide the dominant notes in the season’s distinctive sweet smell.

You may have chosen some native plants for your garden because they have a reputation for weathering drought, disease and undesirable insects and because they appeal to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. But selecting natives for their sweet-smelling flowers will give your garden another dimension.

Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora roses, which we should dislike because they are invasive, also account for much of the lovely smell wafting through the air in springtime. One of my own favorites, the black locust tree – an aggressive grower, if ever there was one – produces a scent reminiscent of gardenia and jasmine from its drooping clusters of white, wisteria-like flowers in early May.

Once upon a time, the nose was a powerful tool for human survival. It enabled us to detect dangerous predators and sniff out romantic partners. Nowadays, it’s more likely to warn of a gas leak, a fire or someone standing too close who’s slathered in aftershave or strong perfume.

But the nose can be a powerful source of pleasure and happiness. It can resurrect precious memories. So, why not add some delicious smells to your garden?

Red osier dogwood’s flowers look quite unlike what one usually associates with dogwood – four-petalled, scent-less white blossoms that stand out in a forest against the dark green background. Flowering dogwood (cornus florida), an understory tree (growing under tall trees), may be a feast for the eyes, but red osier dogwood (cornus sericea) alerts us to spring through its lovely sweet smell.
The tiny white flowers that project the aroma might be unnoticeable, were it not for the fact they grow clustered together in umbrels – flat flowerheads, like small, upside-down umbrellas – about the size of a silver dollar. Close up, the blossoms look fuzzy due to all the tiny stamens sticking up in the air. They attract pollinators of all shapes and sizes like nobody’s business.

Often growing at human eye level, the flowers also offer the gardener an excellent view of insects going about their business of collecting pollen: An excellent reason to stand still for a minute and admire the workings of nature.

From a distance, red osier dogwood’s white flowers stand out against their own green leaves and red stems, adding immeasurably to the general look of the spring landscape. In winter, the plant’s white berries attract birds and its red branches may be the most colorful feature of your dormant garden.

What other sources may not tell you

Many are the native azaleas that will grow in our gardens. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service book “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed” lists seven types of azalea. All produce delicate flowers in less traffic-stopping colors than the cultivated varieties.

What many references may not tell you, however, is that some of the native azaleas – unlike the greenhouse-raised hybrids – have a lovely smell. I know of one, in particular, the Pinxterbloom azalea (a.k.a. pink azalea, Pinxter flower, purple honeysuckle, Election-pink). The botanical name of this 6-10 foot tall shrub is rhododendron periclymenoides, R. nudiflorum or azalea nudiflorum.

Recently, I inhaled this azalea’s perfume in the garden of Leslie Hunter Cario, a native plant and conservation consultant who heads Chesapeake Horticulture Services, in Easton. It was the first time I’d ever encountered an azalea which didn’t smell of nothing at all. What did it smell like? Much like its namesake (one of them), honeysuckle.

Swamp azalea or swamp honeysuckle (rhododendron viscosum) and dwarf or coast azalea are also fragrant. The first stands usually less than 10 feet tall and has white, sometimes pink, flowers. The second can be as short as a foot and rarely tops four feet. It produces purplish pink (occasionally white) blossom.

In all honesty, I should mention that two sources I consulted described the Pinxterbloom azalea and swamp azalea as susceptible to insects and disease. The Pinxterbloom in the Cario garden, however, looked perfect.

Some other fragrant native shrubs include: Sweetfern (comptonia peregrina), which has yellowish-green flowers in April to May and can grow to three feet; sweet pepperbush or summersweet (clethra alnifolia), with white-pink flowers in July-August, 6-12 feet; and buttonbush (cephalanthus occidentalis), which can reach the same height and has white fuzzy-ball blossoms that appear at the same time of summer.

Others indigenous shrubs worth considering include: Tassel-white or Virginia sweetspire (itea virginica), white flowers in late June through late July, 6-12 feet; spicebush (lindera benzoin), yellow flowers in March-May, 6-1/2-16 feet; wax myrtle or southern bayberry (morella cerifera), which has fragrant leaves, inconspicuous flowers and lovely blue-grey berries, 6-15 feet; northern bayberry or candleberry (morella pennsylvanica), same as above, but shorter at 5-10 feet.

Red chokeberry (aronia arbutifolia) and black chokeberry (aronia melanocarpa) have white flowers which resemble apple blossom. The first flowers mid- through late May and reaches 6-12 feet, while the second flowers early through late May and grows to between 3 and 6 feet. While not generally described as fragrant, I find they produce a delicate sweet smell that holds great appeal for pollinators, as well.

The same goes for pasture rose (rosa carolina), which flowers in pink from May through June  and stands ½ to 3 feet tall, and swamp rose (rosa palustris), also pink, June through August, but which can reach as much as 8 feet tall. These roses smell like roses.

Meanwhile, from what I’ve read, purple flowering raspberry or fragrant thimbleberry (rubus odoratus) is a must! Not only is its fruit (July-September) edible, and its rose-purple flowers fragrant, but the blossom appears from June all the way through September – four months. I must emphasize that I have no personal experience with this native and I’m quite happy with my ordinary raspberry patch (apart from its trying to take over the garden), but for anyone who wants to try the purple-flowering raspberry, it sounds like a winner. Apparently, gardeners as far afield as Europe value it for its extremely long and fragrant flowering season. And perhaps long eating season, too.

Consider trying at least a few of the fragrant native shrubs mentioned here. In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener from Dorchester County.

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