Combine plants, herbs and flowers for a fragrant bouquet of scents

BY Claire Yezbak Fadden

There is nothing more invigorating and satisfying than breathing in sweet fragrances while standing in your backyard. It might be easier than you think to grow a colorful garden that is not only beautiful and soothing but also infuses the air with a variety of sweet smells.

A haven to 30 themed gardens, the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas has 37 acres teeming with scents, color and nature’s beauty. Traverse their four miles of trails to view 4,000 species and varieties of tropical, subtropical and California native plants. We asked horticulturist Julian Duval, the Garden’s CEO and President, to share some ideas with us.

“Fragrances are very personal,” says Duval, who relies on his staff and army of volunteers to keep the gardens pristine. “What is pleasing to one person’s sense of smell may not be agreeable at all to someone else. And keep in mind, when you’re seeking a lovely aroma, it’s not always the flowers that release a scent. Often a plant’s leaves are the bearer of fragrance.”

When planning a perfumed garden, Duval’s first suggestion is to include the wild rose native to Southern California (rosa minutifolia). But after considering other, lesser-known options, he and docent Kathy Anderson shared some additional favorites, including flowers whose leaves produce that famed rose smell.

Consider these options that even a novice gardener can be proud to cultivate successfully. A few might surprise you. In case you want to view these flowers and plants before incorporating them in your own backyard, I’ve noted where they are located on the San Diego Botanic Garden grounds.

Rose-Scented Geranium
Rose-Scented Geranium
Chocolate Mint-Scented Geranium
Chocolate Mint-Scented Geranium

Smells like: vanilla meringue or cherry pie

Plant in sunlit areas. Great for container gardening. Very low maintenance. These blue, red or white flowers bloom in fall and summer. Hamilton Children’s Garden

Leaves smell like: lemon

Drought-tolerant, this plant is a good choice for rock gardens, hanging baskets or small spaces. Blooms all season and likes sunshine. Herb Garden

Smells like: lemon furniture polish

If you’re looking for a conversation piece, this woody vine that produces flowers shaped like curved pipes will do the trick. The vine can grow as long as 25 feet and requires a trellis or other vertical structure to support its winding stems and wide greenery. Blooms in June and July. Next to Herb Garden

Smells like: a lemon drop

Also known as French-Lace geranium because of its lacy, frilly appearance. All geraniums like six to eight hours of sunshine daily. The pale pink flowers bloom sporadically. Herb Garden

Smells like: a peppermint patty

Named more for the maroon splotches of its leaves than a chocolate taste, you may want to grow this herb in pots or containers to control its wandering ways. Thrives alongside water gardens or in damp spots in your yard. Plants open white blooms in late summer. Herb Garden


No surprise here. The deeply lobed, airy leaves of this geranium smell more like roses than some rose varieties. The small, pinkish white flowers bloom year-round. Herb Garden

Smells like: sweet spice, a wooded forest

“You may recognize this scent from your favorite men’s cologne,” said Duval, who always stops at the bay rum tree with touring guests and invites them to rub a leaf on their wrist and take a whiff. This tree prefers full sun, but will thrive in light shade. White flowers bloom in March and April; inedible oval-shaped fruits appear in July or August. Mexican Garden

Smells like: seductive sweetness with lemon overtones

Commonly known as Angel’s Trumpets, its bell-shaped flowers come in shades of peach, pink, white, pale yellow or orange. This plant emits its fragrant scent only in the evening. Not at all drought resistant, this show stopper can either be a shrub or a small tree. Plant where it will receive afternoon shade. Springtime blooms are breathtaking; however, Duval cautions, be careful, because everything about this plant is poisonous. Tropical Rain Forest; Bamboo Garden

Smells like: sweet herbs with balsamic undertones

For more formal gardens, lavender offers an aromatic border, clipped to form a low hedge. Or plant a few as accents to your garden. Dried leaves are perfect for potpourri, sachets and teas. The purple buds bloom in summer. Mediterranean Garden