Plants have the ability to capture our attention in a number of ways. Flowers are the obvious draw initially, while things like leaves, bark, stems and buds may, in time, earn our respect and admiration. But these attributes are purely visual. Just one of our senses that helps us appreciate plants. But what about those plants that captivate our attention simply be their smell?
For me, the Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum, will always trigger acute nostalgia, reminding me of my youth. Growing up in Roseland, New Jersey our yard had three large Sassafras that you could climb. That alone is saying something if you know the tree. It takes years for Sassafras to be large enough to climb and often you see them as single trunks, not branched low like our trees were. Distinct three-lobed and mitten-shaped leaves no doubt contributed to an early infatuation for plants not to mention an education as well. It is these leaves that have been likened to that of Spicebush. More on this soon enough. Often there would be broken branches in our tree, as I climbed it almost every day. It was these broken branches and its roots; sometimes I got too close with our lawn mower, which smelled like root beer. As the original source for this popular soft drink, Sassafras also has a flower that most miss. Clusters of showy yellow flowers, usually dioecious, appear early in the spring before the tree even leafs out. The cold autumn weather has its leaves turning brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow too.
As promised, Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, has odoriferous leaves. Nondescript leaves, when crushed, have a sweet almost addictive scent. I have seen a few Spicebush, in my time, nearly denuded as those introduced to the plant for the first time had a hard time controlling themselves because of its fragrance. Spicebush is highly adaptive. In the wild it survives in wet, shady, bottomland areas and in your garden can handle full sun. Ideally however, this plant prefers moist, rich soil. A wonderful butterfly plant, Spicebush is a host plant for the eastern tiger swallowtail. Additionally, birds can’t help themselves as they devour the little red drupes this plant produces in later summer into early fall. Finally this small to medium sized shrub typically has reliable yellow fall color.
Grits, sweet tea and Magnolia always conjure up great images of the south. Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is the one Magnolia everyone asks for after they visit the south most likely for their intoxicating fragrance and leathery evergreen foliage. However, another beauty Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, is a native tree that thrives in swampy areas. I never understood why this small, rather petite tree was not more popular for garden center sales. In late May/early June Sweetbay’s creamy white, lemon-scented flowers bloom. For me though, the “tardily deciduous” (statebystategardening.com) or somewhat evergreen foliage is what does it for me. Spicy, evergreen foliage only adds to the allure of this small tree.
Katsuratree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, is a large tree native to China and Japan. As a student at Rutgers University, many years ago, I had a plant ID class in the fall and this tree has stood out ever since. Katsura can grow 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide. Attractive bluish-green foliage somewhat resembles Redbud leaves. In early October Katsura’s senescing leaves give off a spicy cinnamon/brown sugar fragrance. Many have likened this smell to cotton candy too. It is for this reason alone that I planted one in our own front yard for our daughter. Truth be told, ours does not always offer such an aroma, but it is worth waiting for.
A marginally “hardy” conifer is the last to make my list, at least for this article. Monterey Cypress ‘Wilma’, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Wilma’, is a zone 7 plant, which points its “hardiness” towards South Jersey. “Finely textured, small threads of scale-like lemon yellow foliage are the highlight of this this compact, narrow, columnar conifer” (Iseli Nursery). Michael Ehrhart, an accomplished plants person and colleague, has aptly described the scent of this plant as Lemon Pledge. Despite its marginal “hardiness”, the outstanding color and texture of this tidy conifer should be tried, at the very least, as a container plant for our warmer seasons.
Plants offer us so much enjoyment! We could hear the rustling of their leaves, taste their fruit, see their beautiful flowers, caress their unique foliage and even appreciate their pleasant aromas.