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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Scented Garden

By Alyssa

My first thought, on reading Ann Lovejoy’s Fragrance in Bloom: The Scented Garden Throughout the Year (Sasquatch Books, 2004) was—she’s one of us! I’ve always suspected there is a lot of overlap between perfume fans and gardeners (cooks and wine fans, too), and there are striking similarities Lovejoy’s approach to scent in the garden and the way we discuss perfume. I’m only an armchair gardener, but I was thoroughly charmed by this book and I believe anyone else interested in scent will be, too.

Fragrance in Bloom is less a compendium of fragrant plants and gardening directions than a series of chapters about seasonal scents in the garden—how they work, when they don’t, things to try, and most especially how to grow plants next to one another in the garden to create what Lovejoy calls “living perfumes.”
In one area we may intermingle a series of gentle scents... Elsewhere, delicate fragrances build up to stronger ones, which are then tempered by sharp or stringent neighbors. We learn to use distinctly contrasting scents for refreshment, pairing the spicy, yarrowlike aroma of lavender cotton…with the velvety jungle perfume of petunias, or mixing dreamy mignonette with brisk living thyme.
Lovejoy recommends writing down personal likes and dislikes, noting that our tastes are likely to change as we explore and learn to appreciate the subtleties of scent. She also recommends keeping a few areas of the garden relatively free of scented plants because “Once we become really awake to plant perfumes, it is quite easy to get carried away.” Sound familiar?

The author herself is no stranger to getting carried way, and her lack of embarrassment about this is part of what makes the book a delight. The following description of an old honeysuckle vine is a typical example of her style:
In my present garden, Hall’s honeysuckle had announced itself to my nose long before it was revealed to the eye by a swinging machete. The enormous old plant had twisted itself around a companionable climbing rose—a sweet old thing with fragrant, crumpled flowers like puffs of pale pink tissue. Twined tightly together, they filled the arms of an elderly apple tree. By night, their combined scents make a wandering, winsome perfume that recalls the old Lee Wiley number called “Honeysuckle Rose,” in which she sings of love far sweeter than sugar. This perfume is like that: sweet yet spicy, soft yet penetrating. It arrives in pulses on the warm evening air, now stronger, now fainter, retreating with the breeze, bolstered by a drop in temperature. After a day of heavy rain, the scent rolls in like fog, luring me out to the garden bench to watch the moon wheel across the luminous night sky.
As this passage makes clear, though Fragrance in Bloom is full of pertinent tips and facts, Lovejoy is more interested in bringing us along with her through the garden than in lecturing us. She is a supremely companionable guide, full of good humor and clearly devoted to enjoying herself, as we learn from many anecdotes, including this aside, which appears in a section on jasmine:
Spanish jasmine…is a fast grower when happy, producing lots of lacy, twining leaves in opposite pairs. They have a grip like a baby, gentle but implacable, and if you let this vine wander where it chooses, it can be hard to untwine those tight coils without seriously disturbing the unwilling host. (One year, my indoor plant engulfed the vacuum cleaner. Naturally, I was loath to sacrifice all that incipient bloom, so I was forced to wait until spring cleaning to vacuum again…)
Well, naturally! When I think about why the vacuum cleaner was parked under the flower basket instead of in the closet, and what life must be like in a household where such a thing could happen without anyone noticing until it was too late (surely someone was watering the flowers?) I feel certain that Ann Lovejoy is a woman who has her priorities straight, and is wholly to be trusted—or, at least, someone who knows how tell a good story.

Lovejoy is a Northwesterner and her plant choices are appropriate to that climate. She is also clearly working with a full yard of space. However, she recommends beginning with potted plants to try out scent combinations more easily, and I found much to be inspired by, though I live in the Southwest.

The book is roughly organized around the progression of the seasons, with chapters on spring, summer, and so on, but the exception to this rule, the especially wonderful chapter, “Night-Fragrant Plants,” reveals that Lovejoy’s true interest is context—the time of day, the company we keep, whether we require soothing or stimulation, where we are sitting, or walking (or kneeling—many of her wintertime recommendations are for plants that sweeten the chore of digging in the cold mud) in the garden. Thus we learn which plants require sniffing close-up and which require ten feet of space in which to properly announce their scents, the difference between honeysuckle in the morning (“light and floral”), afternoon (faded, slightly spicy) and the evening (“rich and satiny smooth”) and how to make any party better by planting datura, a highly poisonous plant whose lush scent is a natural intoxicant, in pots around your seating areas. This last was a technique Lovejoy discovered one summer when she hosted a friend’s datura collection: “I was commenting that our summer gatherings had been especially hilarious and wonderful lately, when a knowing botanist explained that the cause was more likely the datura than any sudden increase of wit and charm on our parts.”

Clearly I’ve been a little intoxicated myself by Fragrance in Bloom, as this is less a review than a fan letter. (I’m even thinking of doing a little gardening!) Do comment if you’ve had experience growing scented plants or have other books on the subject to recommend.

Note: Lovejoy has written many other books. You can find more of her writing, including recipes from the garden and tips on organic garden design, at her regularly updated site,

Photo Credit: Pink Datura by overthemoon on flickr.

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Blogger Flora said...

Alyssa, what a wonderful evocation of a gardener's delight in fragrant plants! I am one of those too, and I only wish I could claim that a jasmine vine had overwhelmed my vacuum cleaner before I could stop it. That would be a badge of honor in my book. :-D

I too especially love night-fragrant plants, such as moonflower and nicotiana, that give the evening garden such sensual mystery. I love it all though, from the pungent tomato vines to the sweetest rose. Great book review!

1:53 AM EDT  
Blogger rebella said...

I have the smallest little patchouli plant and watching over it constantly. It´s more of an experiment than something I feel sure about to succeed with, since it isn´t probably the best place to grow patchouli in Sweden. :)

2:13 AM EDT  
Blogger carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

I'm no gardener (no garden)but I love this author's approach and I feel like getting the book just to vicariously enjoy her scented experiments... My friend Nicole Boschung also wrote a book about scented gardens, in French, and I know she's *definitely* one of us!

5:16 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Flora-- Glad you liked it! Do you know of other gardening books focused on the fragrant?

10:23 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Rebella -- Oh, I wish you luck! Your little plant is far, far, away from its origins--but maybe a sunlamp? A cold frame?

And surely there are other fragrant plants special to Sweden? I can grow patchouli here in Texas, but all sorts of Northern things just wither and die.

10:25 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

D-- My garden currently consists of a dead lawn and several struggling trees. (We've had a month of above 100 temps recently.) I ended up with a copy of the book because I kept gifting it to gardening friends. Her writing is very good, and I've completely enjoyed it as a bedside companion.

I did try to contact Lovejoy to see if she had a secret perfume life, but alas, she responds only to snail mail...

10:28 AM EDT  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

Alyssa, I very much loved your post and think I will have to order this book. I have a number of fragrant shrubs and plants in my garden, including lily of the valley, mock orange, honeysuckle, autumn olive (which flowers in spring and is absolutely intoxicating) and old-fashioned petunias.

Regarding Datura and summer parties, there is a marvelous chapter in Bailey White's novel, "Quite a Year for Plums," in which two retired school marms decide to throw a dinner party in the night garden that belongs to one of them, and "the odd musky fragrance of the datura" gets blamed for the eventual hook-up of two of the guests. :-)

10:56 AM EDT  
Blogger Tammy said...

ALL her gardening books are a delight; she is one of my favorite authours! She has one about making atea garden, too.

I have a ton of books about fragrance in the garden, (I'm a gardener) but the one I love the most is Stephen Lacey's "The Startling Jungle"

HIGHLY recommend it.

11:19 AM EDT  
Blogger Tammy said...

Oh, and my guess is that the jasmine was on a table, not hanging. I had a similar thing happen once.

12:17 PM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Suzanne -- That's a wonderful literary tidbit, thank you! I think there must be a whole Datura history out there somewhere, no? I know it shows up in surrealist lit on a regular basis.

2:39 PM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Tammy -- How can I resist a book called "The Startling Jungle"?!

And yes, I have Lovejoy's tea book as well as several others, all ordered after I found this one, but I still like Fragrance in Bloom best. Something happens to her writing when she's describing scent...

As for the jasmine--hanging on or on a table, I am still baffled and delighted. And now I want to go to your house, too.

2:42 PM EDT  
Blogger Tammy said...

I think you'll love the book! He also has one that is strictly devoted to scent in the garden.....that may be it's name, actually!....but I preferred Startling Jungle. It made me laugh out loud in parts.

4:48 PM EDT  
Anonymous Aparatchick said...

Very interesting post, Alyssa. I planted a gardenia shrub right by my door, so that when it blooms in April (when the weather is good enough here to have the door open) I can smell it in the house. So lovely.

I heard Ann Lovejoy speak several years ago at the Pacific NW Flower and Garden show, the subject being fragrant gardens! I'll have to look for her book.

5:31 PM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Aparatchik--that is my favorite way to smell gardenia--wafting into the house from a bush. The humid air down south makes it even better, I think.

5:33 PM EDT  
Blogger rebella said...

All kinds of herbs(thyme, sage, etc)are common in Sweden and lavender is easy to grow even tough it´s a mediterrean plant. I´ve also got roses, honeysuckle and citrus plants (the citruses and the patchouli moves in during the cold season).

I am almost as much into gardening that in to perfumes, but perfumes I can enjoy all year round. :)

4:01 AM EDT  

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