Today I walked through Chicago’s Lurie Garden after a hard rain. Usually I love that place for its lush colors and varied textures, but today it was the smells working their magic. Prairie Dropseed grass, Sporobolus heterolepis, was the workhorse in the fragrance department. There was also some ornamental oregano providing backup, but it was definitely the Dropseed which overwhelmed my olfactory senses. To me, Sporobolus smells like what a natural bubblegum, if there were such a thing, might smell like: sweet but not sugary, light and airy in the nostrils, playful in the mouth. When I worked at Gethsemane Garden Center, one of the veterans in the perennial department described the smell as cotton candy. There is definitely something sweet about the smell, but like she noted, it’s not fruity like the sweet of many wines. It’s more of a candy sweet, reminiscent of the sweet smell of a Stevia plant, but somehow more pink than Stevia’s green. Like many plants that aren’t herbs, the Sporobolus grass’ richest scent comes from its flowers.
One plant that doesn’t have to bloom in order to provide its smell is actually a good one for the urban gardener due to its compact size. Comptonia peregrina, or Sweetfern, is a 2-4 foot tall plant which starts out about 18 inches wide but apparently will spread by rhizomes if it has the sun and space to do so. My Sweetfern is only a year old so I haven’t seen it spread yet; I also haven’t seen it bloom. But I’ve smelled its sweet fragrance many times because it is the leaves which, when disturbed, release a delicate aroma.
Sweetfern is also native to the eastern United States, so we can feel doubly good about planting it here in Illinois.
In my home garden, I’ve found it somewhat difficult to plant specifically for fragrance. For instance, I do have one happy Praire Dropseed in my front yard, but the perfume of one plant doesn’t swim over your cheekbones the way that a stand of twenty or thirty, like they have over at Lurie, does. Admittedly, aside from the Sweetfern, I’ve been fairly remiss about planting with the sense of smell in mind. I think I’m going to change this. With age, my eyesight will probably wane before my olfactory senses do. And in a city, a lovely fragrance is as much a combatant against stinky exhaust as the garden’s soft green colors are against stifling black asphalt and hard gray concrete.
Fortuitously, some of the stuff I’ve put in my garden for other reasons has provided great fragrance as well. My friend Mary gave me Clary Sage, which is an annual here in Chicago but self-seeds prolifically enough that it might as well be perennial. I let one seedling grow each spring and pull the others up. The mature plant is fairly large, 3 feet tall and another 3ft around if you give it that. It’s slightly floppy in habit, but its white flowers, each with a little light-blue, lipped shape cap above them, hang on almost all summer. I originally kept the plant in my garden because it was from a friend and the flowers were cute. I also liked that its shoddy-looking green leaves, which remind me of a fuzzy wild plantain, lay low and out of sight after the rest of the garden fills in. The strong smell of the Clary Sage is my one of my favorite aspects of the plant now. Some say the smell is astringent, but I’d prefer to call it “clean.” It’s an earthy smell too, and spicier than traditional, culinary sage. I walk the garden bed where it’s blooming and the odor greets me like an old pal. “Thanks for keeping me around,” it seems to say; “No, thank you,” returns my nose.