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Native plants with fragrant allure

CORRECTION - Library Garden Tour is 9 am-4 pm. Incorrect time posted earlier. 
Which speaks to you more – colour or fragrance? A hummingbird is inexorably drawn to colour and will investigate anything red, even inanimate objects that have no odour at all. Although bees discern colour (but not, apparently, red), scent is the guiding force and they will travel a long way for a grove of basswood trees or a field of blooming milkweed.

But many of the plants we love because they smell so wonderful are invasive aliens from Europe or Asia, aggressively displacing native species in the wild. This Don’t-Plant-This list includes Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), species Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and a host of non-native vine and shrub Honeysuckles.

No worries: there are much better choices for Huronia gardens - so many native plants that provide intoxicating fragrance and why should the moths, the butterflies and the bees be the only ones to know?

Here’s a run-down:

1.Herbaceous perennials (these are plants grown for foliage or flowers that go dormant in winter and emerge again the following spring)

Anise Hyssop* (Agastache foeniculum) 3 feet - aromatic foliage lavender spikes spreads by seeding. Sun

Bee Balm* (Monarda fistulosa) 4 feet - aromatic foliage lavender blooms spreads.  Sun

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) 5 feet - Extremely handsome plant with finely dissected leaves and strongly scented creamy flower spikes in September-October. Can be called Actaea racemosa. There's a similar plant sold as Bugbane (Cimicifuga simplex). 'Chocolate' cultivars of either variety are worthwhile.

Oswego Tea* (Monarda didyma) 5 feet – aromatic foliage, bright red flowers attract hummingbirds. Spreads vigorously. Sun 

Rose Milkweed* (Asclepias incarnata) 3 feet - vanilla scent from globes of deep pink blooms with light pink centres. Moist to average soils. Sun / shade

Wild Ginger* (Asarum canadense) 6 inches - faint aroma of ginger from leaves. A good ground cover for shade. Spreads gradually


Sweetgrass* (Hierochloe odorata) 1 foot - Grass releases a vanilla scent when you walk through it. Used by First Nations in smudging ceremonies. Spreads vigorously (that’s a warning, but in the right spot, this grass is perfect). Sun

3.Shrubs with fragrant leaves

Spicebush* (Lindera benzoin) up to 15 feet – showy yellow flower clusters in early spring, aromatic foliage when crushed. Part sun part shade, moist soil

Fragrant Sumac* (Rhus aromatica) up to 10 feet - yellow flowers, pretty tri-lobed leaves that turn red in fall and are fragrant when crushed. Sun

4. Shrubs with fragrant flowers

Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum) - 5 feet - intensely fragrant yellow flowers in May, berries later. A shrub from central Canada, so not native to Huronia, hardy and one of the earliest bloomers. Sun / shade

Witchhazel* (Hamamelis virginiana) – up to 10 feet – Fragrant yellow flowers with ribbon shaped petals appear in fall. Part shade

Purple Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) - 4 feet deep - pink fragrant flowers followed by berries, foliage also is fragrant if crushed. Sun

Meadowsweet* (Spirea alba) – for wet areas. Fragrant white flower spikes in August.  Sun

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) - 5 feet – Gorgeous white bottlebrush flowers, often tinged with pink. Useful traits: does well in part shade, flowers in August.

5. Vines

Virgin`s Bower (Clematis virginiana) – Fragrant white flowers in June. Fluffy seedheads persist into winter. Fast-growing, vigorous spreader

Wild Cucumber Vine* (Echinocystis lobata) – An under-appreciated denizen of local ditches, wonderfully fragrant frothy white flowers in August followed by interesting prickly seedpods. Beautiful shape to the leaves. Spread is easily controlled by pulling out the squash-like seedlings in spring.

6. Deciduous trees

American Basswood* (Tillia Americana) Pleasing mid-size tree, flowers mid-July, very fragrant, the best honey is said to come from bees that feed on nectar from the basswood tree

Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crux galli) Small tree with fragrant white flowers in May-June followed by edible `haws`

Honey Locust* (Gleditsia triacanthos) Fragrant white panicles of flowers in June, a dappled shade, a member of the pea family that fixes nitrogen in the soil. Fastgrowing. Sun / shade

Northern Catalpa* (Catalpa speciosa) Large leaves, orchid-like fragrant flowers, long seed pods. Beekeepers like it too. Sun

Silverberry* (Eleagnus commutate) Small tree or shrub with silvery leaves, small fragrant yellow flowers in June. For full sun, heat. Suckers to create thickets. Sun

7. Conifers

Dry pine needles crunch underfoot and the scent engulfs you in the heat of an August afternoon... Yes, it's summer. Year-round, a strip of mixed conifers provides a windbreak, a privacy screen, and excellent wildlife habitat.

These are some that are native to Huronia:

-Eastern White Pine* Pinus Strobus

-Eastern White Cedar* Thuja occidentalis

-Balsam Fir* Abies balsamea

-Canadian Hemlock* Tsuga Canadensis

*Available from Return of the Native. Check plant list for prices, and this is our location. We’re open when we’re here, which is most of the time, check ahead if you plan to come: 705-322-2545. I will be bringing some of my plants to the Library Garden Tour and will be set up outside the Midland Library on Sunday July 12 from 9 am to 4 pm. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you are going to be there and would like me to bring something in particular for you to check out. 

Diane Greenfield
- 12 June 2014 at 12:35pm

As usual, I learn something wonderful. Now Basswoods are on my loved list.... And i am appreciating wild cucumber evem more. I did not think of them as fragrant!
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