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Book Review: RHS Companion to Scented Plants

RHS Scented PlantsStephen Lacey with photographs by Andrew Lawson The Royal Horticultural Society's Companion to Scented Plants, (Frances Lincoln, 2014) £25

The fragrance of carefully placed plants can add an extra and enjoyable dimension to any garden.  In this Second edition to an RHS publication Stephen Lacey, a distinguished garden writer and lecturer, introduces the Companion with chapters on the nature of scent and our emotional responses to different fragrances but immediately sounds a cautionary note:  “This is a book about the scented garden, but scent is not the most important consideration to the garden-maker…Gardens need an overall design, and planting schemes need structure, harmony and seasonal spectacle.  If these are lacking no amount of scented sorcery can compensate”. A valuable point to which he returns from time to time.

 He goes on to describe, briefly, the different types of scents, not only of flowers but also of leaves and resins, both the pleasant and popular - spicy, fruit scents and the “mouth-watering” honey scents - and also the less pleasant such as that of the Dracunculus vulgaris “one of the foulest-smelling but most dramatic hardy perennials”.  He points out that so susceptible are garden visitors that they can be conditioned to respond to the “meaty” scents of Clerodendrums or Salvias by describing them in  advance.  “If I tell people that Salvia confertiflora leaves smell of roast lamb and mint sauce (which they do), then they invariably sniff  them and say ‘Delicious’.  But if instead I tell them to prepare for an unpleasant smell, they will sniff them and say ‘Yuck’”.

After a short chapter with suggested planting schemes for different settings in which scent is to be the dominant characteristic Lacey then looks, in separate chapters, at trees and shrubs; perennials, bulbs and annuals; rose gardens; herb gardens and the planting of summer pots.  And in these chapters, anxious to ensure that visitors do not say “Yuck” he suggests plant combinations with the message that gardeners should be imaginative in their planting.  “Where there is a scentless tree, you can inject fragrance by letting it play host to a scented climbing plant.  Honeysuckles, Clematis and climbing roses are obvious contenders”  He recalls a pairing of a Chinese wisteria rambling through a scarlet crab in an Oxford garden “giving an encounter for the passing public that was  both visually arresting and a treat for the nose”.

Each chapter is followed by a list of plants in which he picks on some of their special features. Taking some of those comments as random examples, he describes the “mouth-watering scent of caramel” of Cercidiphyllum japonicum, the honey and almond of many Prunus; the fiery autumn colour and spectacular bark of Stewartia sinensis, the most scented of a group of trees and shrubs for woodland conditions; the warm and spicy scent of wallflowers;  the heady evening scent of Lilium regale; the rather weedy-looking Nicotiana alata ‘Grandiflora’ redeemed at dusk when it “glows with an ethereal beauty” and fills the air with an exotic perfume.  The descriptions of the plants and the combinations he suggests will certainly send you to your Nursery lists and stimulate new ideas.

The text is well illustrated with photographs by Andrew Lawson.

So many new gardening books are of transient “Coffeetable”  interest and too generalised to be of use: this book will be valued and well-thumbed by all enthusiastic gardeners.

A Pugh-Thomas

10 November 2014