Most people associate a plant’s fragrance with its flowers, but virtually every part of a plant can be scented. Beyond blooms, foliage most commonly emits an aroma; however, bark, stems and twigs, flower buds, fruit and seeds and even underground roots can have a scent. Additionally, the bouquet produced by a particular part of a plant is not necessarily similar to that of its flowers.


The presence of aromatic substances in different plant tissues is not easily explained. Scientists agree that most are the byproducts of plant metabolism. Perhaps some of these chemicals, and the scents they produce, act as deterrents to browsing two-, four- and six-legged herbivores. In the case of fruit, however, the fragrance is a signal sent to entice potential consumers.


Foliage

When brushed or crushed, the foliage of numerous plants emits aroma. Brushing is an effective scent-releasing method for many culinary herbs such as rosemary, basil, sage or mint. The leaves of shrubs such as sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) and lavender (Lavandula spp.) also produce scent when brushed. My personal favorite is the tender evergreen shrub Australian mint bush (Prostanthera rotundifolia), which features mint-scented leaves.


A number of conifers release pleasing scents when their foliage is brushed, particularly members of the pine family, as well as balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). Another aromatic evergreen is eucalyptus, the foliage of which is rich with essential oil used for perfumery and aromatherapy. The bluegum tree (Eucalyptus globulus) is a principal source of eucalyptus oil worldwide. Its aroma resembles pine and mint, with a touch of honey. Many of us may be familiar with this characteristic scent because of its widespread medical applications. Furthermore, the lustrous dark-green leaves of most citrus plants release a zingy aroma, particularly grapefruit and lime trees.


Sometimes foliage fragrance is seasonal, as is the case with the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum spp.) and the Antarctic beech (Nothofagus antarctica). All katsura trees are valued for their beautiful fall foliage, which releases a sweet fragrance resembling caramel or cotton candy. Alternatively, when emerging in spring the asymmetrical leaves of Antarctic beech give off a sweet herb-like smell. A few plants with scented leaves are weather-sensitive, releasing their aromas only on warm days or after a heavy rain.


A Katsura tree with fall foliage in shades of red, orange and pink.

Not only humans appreciate foliage fragrance. The cottage-style perennial catnip (Nepeta spp.) is famed for its effect on cats. The lemony and minty fragrance drives most cats batty.

Bark

Interestingly, the inner bark of a few trees contains olfactory wonders. One of the best known is cinnamon, derived from the inner bark of tropical evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. Among them, the Ceylon cinnamon tree (C. verum) is often considered the only true source of cinnamon.

Certain true cedars such as atlas (Cedrus atlantica), deodar (C. deodara), Lebanon (C. libani) and Cyprus (C. brevifolia) emit a spicy aroma somewhat similar to that of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum). Releasing a sweet fragrance is also a specialty of two birches – sweet birch (Betula lenta) and yellow birch (B. lutea). Conversely, the bark of black cherry (Prunus serotina) is known for its bitter almond aroma.

A branch of rosemary with green needles.

Stems and Twigs

Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is famous for its delightful fragrance. In addition to its aromatic flowers and leaves, lavender’s stems release a pleasant scent, particularly when crushed. Not all lavenders emit a strong aroma. English lavender (L. angustifolia) is considered the most fragrant. Some twigs emit an unpleasant scent, such as those of silver maple (Acer saccharinum). If scraped or broken, they produce a strong foul odor.

Flower Buds

The most known and widely used fragrant flower buds are cloves. Upon close inspection, they resemble miniature flowers. In fact, they are the dried, unopened flower buds of the evergreen clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum) native to Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands (the Moluccas). Cloves are used to flavor both savory and sweet foods in many cuisines, but much of the world crop is used in Indonesia for cigarettes that are a blend of tobacco and ground cloves.

Fruits and Seeds

Most seeds won’t germinate unless the fruit surrounding them is consumed, and scent advertises a fruit’s readiness to be eaten. Consequently, the vast majority of fruit is mildly fragrant, particularly when ripe and fresh. Some fruits, however, retain their scent even when dried. Probably the best known is black pepper, which is the dried fruit of the tropical vine called the black pepper plant (Piper nigrum) native to India. Also known as peppercorns, they are the world’s most traded and most common spice used in cuisines worldwide.

Black, green, white and pink peppercorns mixed together on a white plate.

Another broadly traded crop is coffee, derived from the seeds of the coffee plant (Coffea spp.) native to tropical Asia and Africa. The seeds, called coffee beans, are used to make beverages and various other products. Similarly to coffee, cocoa is derived from cocoa beans, also known as cacao beans. They are the dried seeds of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) of Central America. Ground cocoa beans are the basis of all chocolate products.

Aromatic cardamom was once known as the queen of spices, with its strong taste with a resinous fragrance. Its source is the seeds of plants growing in India and Malaysia such as the malabar cardamom plant (Elettaria cardamomum), regarded as superior to other types. It produces papery capsules that are packed with small, dark seeds.

Another well-known fragrant seed is vanilla, derived from the tropical climbing orchid (Vanilla planifolia). Although the original orchid’s home is the rainforest of Central America, it is now cultivated in many tropical parts of the world.

Many coniferous trees produce an abundance of cones smelling of pine. The woody cones with stiff, overlapping scales are primarily a seed factory and then a storage facility.


Roots

Fragrant roots are a rarity, but not in the iris family. Both the Dalmatian iris (Iris pallida) and the German iris (I. germanica) produce rhizome-type roots that smell of violets. They are used in the perfume industry and as an ingredient in North African and Middle East cuisine, particularly in Moroccan dishes.


Another rhizomatous root widely used as a spice is pungent ginger (Zingiber officinale). It is a member of the family Zingiberaceae, which also includes aromatic turmeric (Curcuma longa). Turmeric root is mildly scented with a mix of orange and ginger. The outer skin must be removed to release the scent.


Not many aromatic roots can beat the strong scent of onion (Allium spp.) and its cousins, shallot and garlic. Even their papery skin can’t stop the unmistakable aroma. These bulb vegetables are widely used in cooking worldwide.


It is not possible to cover all perfumed plants. I hope some readers may be encouraged to delve further, while others can find a new pleasure in gardening.

Text and photos by Gina Dobrodzicka


Gina Dobrodzicka is a freelance writer and trained horticulturalist who lives on Vancouver Island.

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