Three Shrubs for Fall Fragrance

The pleasure to be gained from fragrance is a most personal thing, so each gardener must select his or her flowers and develop a fragrant garden according to individual taste.

The Garden Encyclopedia, 1941

With the almost unlimited opportunities for garden, patio, and balcony living on the Pacific coast, fragrance should be carefully considered when planning a garden or container planting. A large garden can be designed with many centers of fragrance, using either a blend of harmonious scents or a single prominent one. A single fragrant plant can transform a small patio with a suggestion of paradise, carrying the imagination far from the city and into a life of dreams.

Cestrum nocturnum. Drawings by Mimi Osborne.

Cestrum nocturnum. Drawings by Mimi Osborne.

Condemned by some and loved by others, the cloying fragrance of Cestrum nocturnum, night jessamine, belongs to warm summer and fall nights. It is a plant to use alone as it will overpower almost any other garden fragrance. This frost-sensitive native of the West Indies is one of the nightshades, a member of the Solanaceae, and has been cultivated in California since the early 1850s. Though it can reach a height of twelve feet, it is best cut back severely after flowering or after the first frost. When left uncut the tall upright branches have a tendency to flop over in wind and rain, creating a shaggy unbecoming bush. For container growing or when a compact garden shrub is needed, new growth should be pinched back often.

Flowers are produced from July to October. They are greenish white, with a tubular corolla, and hang in two- to eight-inch long clusters from the axils of long oval leaves. The flowers are followed by white berries, which attract birds. I do not find Cestrum nocturnum particularly handsome, and rather than plant it where I have to contend with its floppiness I prefer to tuck it in a corner or under a window where its heady nocturnal fragrance can permeate the yard and house while the plant remains inconspicuous.

Night jessamine is easy to propagate from cuttings of half-ripened stems taken from May through August. Place the cuttings in sandy soil or a peat and perlite mixture and give bottom heat and high humidity. The plant can also be grown from seeds and will self-seed under proper conditions. I have grown it in sandy soil, clay, and planter mixes with no noticeable effect on its health. It does require ample water; too little can result in leaf bleaching and burning at the leaf margins.

A versatile shrub for those who like their fragrance in the daytime and not so overpowering is the silverberry or thorny elaeagnus. Elaeagnus pungens is native to China and Japan and is a member of the Elaeagnaceae or oleaster family, along with Hippophae and Shepherdia. The beauty of this shrub lies in the minute scales covering the stems and leaves, which catch the sunlight, giving the olive-drab bush a silvery frosted appearance. It is a slow-growing plant varying in height from six to fifteen feet with an equal or greater spread. Left on its own it will form a sprawling mound. Wayward branches need to be pruned to keep the mound uniform. It can also be pruned for compactness and shape. The spiny stems make it a good barrier plant.

Tolerant of reflected heat, wind, coastal conditions, and drought when established, Elaeagnus pungens is an excellent plant for the California landscape. It will grow in any well-drained soil, including limestone, alkaline, and saline soils. It prefers full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Propagation is by seed, which will not germinate until the second spring, and by mature or half-ripened wood. Plants are not bothered by pests or diseases and they are resistant to oak root fungus.

The half-inch tubular flowers hang in clusters from the leaf axils; they are silvery white with rusty scales and have a lovely fragrance. The flowers are followed by oval three-quarter inch long fruits that are also covered with scales, turning from olive green to red when ripe; both are hidden by the dense foliage. The leaves in some cultivars are variegated.

Osmanthus fragrans

Osmanthus fragrans

Osmanthus means fragrant flower, so Osmanthus fragrans may be expected to be especially so. This glossy leaved shrub with its delightful apricot fragrance is commonly called fragrant olive, and indeed it was once included in the same genus as the edible olive. The flowers of Osmanthus fragrans are used to flavor tea in the Orient, and another common name, tea osmanthus, refers to this.

Although a slow grower with an average height of ten feet, thirty-foot specimens of Osmanthus fragrans are said to have been found in the wild in eastern Asia. The plant forms a dense mound and makes an excellent background, foundation, hedge, or border. It can be grown in a container as a patio specimen or espaliered against a wall. O. fragrans is in heaviest bloom from June to August, but in our mild climate it will provide fragrance year round. O. fragrans forma aurantiacus with apricot-colored flowers in October has been cultivated in England since about 1910, when it was received from Japan. It is not known in the wild, although it is well known in cultivation.

The plant is evergreen, with rich green leaves two to three inches in length; the flowers are one-half inch long and white. The fruit, a one-seeded drupe, is rarely produced in cultivation. Native to the Himalaya, China, and Japan, Osmanthus fragrans has been in cultivation so long (known since 1771) that its nativity is clouded. The white-flowered form is common in Szechwan where it is found growing in many temple courtyards and is used as an offering by priests because of its strong scent.

Osmanthus fragrans prefers a rich loamy soil that is well drained. Leaf burn will occur if the soil is too alkaline or saline. In neutral to alkaline soils, common in the West, it is best to add an acidic conditioner when planting osmanthus. It will grow in full sun in coastal regions, but inland does best in part shade, and in east and north exposures. It should be protected from hot winds and reflected heat, such as from a south or west wall or blacktopped surface.

Osmanthus can be propagated from half-ripe wood in July and August. Cuttings should be inserted in a peat and sand mixture and placed in a propagating frame or under mist. They need to be watched for mealy bug and scale infestation, particularly if container-grown near indoor plants. If bothered by aphids, hose them off or use a multi-purpose garden pesticide.