Fragrance in the Winter Garden

During the winter, I often have friends visit who really would like to see the garden - and I always wish that I could show it off decked out in color, with blossoms and bumblebees. Instead, I apologize for the slightly unkempt appearance of everything - I'm not big on leaf removal.

As we walk around, I point to yet another green plant, saying "and here's where a riot of Californa poppies, bright orange, will be in April" or "and this sage blooms blue in May". But then I often stop, and say:"Oh, and it has the most amazing fragrance."

Sometimes my visitors look perplexed - and sometimes they might even bend down to smell the single sorry flower. So I take a leaf, crush it lightly between my fingers, and hand it to my friend. Ahhh, the look of delight and surprise!

Many of California native plants have fragrant leaves and few have fragrant flowers, so winter is the best time to enjoy them.

1. Hummingbird sage (salvia spatacea, shown above), beloved for its red flowers, has a fragrance that seems a mix of mint and sage. Fresh but not overpowering - quite possibly my favorite.

2. White sage (salvia apiana) is the sage that is traditionally used for smudgesticks by American Indian tribes. Because the smudgesticks have become popular with others, plants in the wild are often mutilated or dug out completely - and all that with a plant that's very easy to grow (below, white sage in the background and pitcher sage, with purple flowers, in the foreground on the left.)

I personally find the fragrance of white sage a little on the musky side and quite strong, but I do enjoy brushing against it by accident - very distinctive, very wild. 

3. Salvia clevlandii's much smaller leaves offer a more gentle fragrance. Still very sagey, but not so strong. My favorite is a plant that came with the house - I think it's the species. But 'Alan Chickering' also has a very enjoyable fragrance. 

 4. With pitcher sage (lepechina fragans) the name already alludes to its intoxicating fragrance. Even though this plant goes almost completely summer dormant, small leaves start to appear in November. And if there's rain (this year, regrettably, not) large leaves and beautiful flowers lighten up the early spring garden.

5. A new acquisition to the garden is Gnaphalium californicum (pearly everlasting). I found this annual during a recent trip to Bay Natives, with the label "smells like curry or maple syrup". I was enchanted - and indeed, the curry smell was very strong. But my friend could clearly smell the maple syrup. Regardless, we each bought a pot and both hope that our treasures will thrive (and reseed for next year).

6. No discussion of fragrant natives is complete without California sagebrush (Artemesia californica) also called "cowboy's cologne". I have one plant tucked away in the back, but I'm thinking I might like another plant or two. The fragrance releases not only when you brush against it, but also when it rains - a most welcome sense pleasure in winter.

You can find a more complete list on the CNPS website here. I just looked at the list, and it made me think of a few other possibilities for my own garden. How about you?


ryan said…
Whenever I work around a Salvia clevelandii, I feel glad I planted it. They smell so nice and they're so pleasant to be around. I haven't been planting Artemisia or Hummingbird Sage much lately, but you're right that they smell terrific too. I wish it would rain so I could smell my artemisia. I hadn't heard it called cowboy's cologne. Great name.
Country Mouse said…
The "Winifred Gilman" cultivar of Salvia clevelandii is one of my favorites - and the ribes can also have a lovely fresh scent on a damp morning. Oh how we long for a damp morning around here!