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Although Francis Bacon, the 16th Century English philosopher and statesman, is best remembered for his promotion of the scientific method, I remember him for his observation that “the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand.”

This is exactly what to keep in mind when planning a sweet-smelling garden. Fragrant flowers typically keep spilling their sweet breath into our garden air longer when they are part of a living plant than when they are cut and placed in a vase of water indoors.

For visitors to our gardens, the scent of flowers is best encountered by chance, as when someone is standing on a veranda and suddenly becomes aware of the smell of honeysuckle nearby.

Some fragrant plants not only smell good, they look good, too, and are given a featured place in the garden. Gardenia augusta fills this bill perfectly, with its richly perfumed, rose-like spiral flowers of the variety called ‘Aimee.’ Plant it in a well-drained spot in rich organic soil in full sun to partial shade facing east or north.

Keep soil moist but not sopping wet, give it a feeding of fish emulsion every month during the growing season, and it and you will be happy.

April is a good month to plant Heliotropium x ‘Fragrant Delight.’ By summer it will perfumes the air with a scent that has been likened to cherry pie, popsicle and vanilla. It’s just a happy scent. This pretty plant performs best in groups of three, especially when planted where it gets afternoon sun that causes it to produce more of the volatile oils that create the perfume. Another bonus is that it’s easy to grow in average to good soil that is moist and well-drained.

First among the major players in the fragrant garden is the poet’s jasmine, Jasminum officinale. Here in the Mediterranean climate of coastal California we are exquisitely lucky to be able to grow the trio of jasmine, daphne and gardenia, since they are not hardy in colder areas. Even so, they may need a covering with an old sheet during hard freezes in our USDA Zone 9. While gardenias are floral, the jasmine’s fragrance is of quite a different character. It is musky, sandalwoody, incense-like, sensual, sexy and earthy, all at once. It evokes romance. Give it something to climb on outside your bedroom window and tie its long twining branches to the netting or structure. Make sure it gets full sun and plenty of water during the dry summer. When it’s in bloom, throw open your bedroom windows. You will be rewarded.

One of our favorite scents in the spring air here in Sonoma County is star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides. It’s not a true jasmine, but is jasmine-like, as its species name indicates. It’s a scandent climber, meaning that it will form a shrub, but if there’s something nearby that it can use to haul itself upwards, it will climb. On warm May days, it can fill the air with a creamy rich vanilla scent. Night-blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum, is a rangy grower with long supple branches and heavily scented flowers that perfume the night air. But it too, is not a true jasmine. And truth be told, many people don’t like its scent, which they say smells like hot dogs.

Anyone who has lived here for any length of time knows the plant that’s called naked ladies, those gangly, long-stalked bulbs in bright pink that appear like showgirls all over the North Coast in late summer. Its botanical name is Amaryllis belladonna and it blooms in August with a heavy, cloyingly sweet scent. Its species name means “beautiful woman,” and that, plus its just-scrubbed-from-the-bathtub pink color gives it its common name.

Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) has that nice honey-sweet smell, but be warned. It’s rampant and invasive and if you plant it, you’d better be prepared to hack and prune before it takes over. Be a responsible gardener and don’t let it get beyond your fence.

Lilacs don’t do particularly well in our warm climate, but they do well enough to plant a few in your fragrant garden where their lilac scent is one of the first sensuous joys of spring. Syringa x chinensis, the Chinese lilac, is the variety that best tolerates our warm climate; it’s lightly scented, and grows 10 to 15 feet tall. It’s too bad Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) doesn’t like our climate because that’s the lovely scent you’ll remember from the round cardboard box of face powder on your grandmom’s vanity.

Among trees, Magnolia grandiflora, with its hat-sized white blossoms and citrusy scent is a common sight in the North Bay.

And of course, you can’t talk about scented flowers without a nod to roses. It’s always a disappointment to see a pretty rose and bend over to smell it, only to find it has no scent. That won’t be the case if you plant some of the old roses of antiquity, which were highly prized for their fragrance. The nuns used to cook their scented petals to a mushy black mash, then roll bits into beads that they strung to make their aptly-named rosaries, each bead yielding a scent of roses as the worshipper peeled off another Hail Mary.

Many people consider the scent of the damask rose (Rosa damascena) as the true rose scent, but others would argue for Rosa gallica, the old French Rose. A damask cultivar named ‘Madame Hardy’ is a white rose with a strong scent that she projects for several feet. Many hybrid teas and other modern roses are beautifully scented, including ‘Mister Lincoln,’ and my personal favorite, a fully double, apricot-colored, hybrid tea called ‘Gruss an Coburg’ that carries a super-strong fragrance so beautiful it warbles on the air like music.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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