Home & Garden

Seven Southern Plants That Add Fragrance to Your Garden

Stop and smell the tea olives

A blooming magnolia

Photo: gret Mackintosh


“When I was a child, I remember my mom planting a basic square raised-bed garden and helping her plant seeds, and going back into the house, sitting by the window, and waiting for specifically the carrots to grow,” says Gret Mackintosh, a landscape architect turned artist who showed her Charleston, South Carolina, home and garden in our June/July issue. “I think about that all the time with my son, Mack, because we have a little vegetable garden, and edibles are so high on the list of scented plants.”

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Mackintosh’s recollection represents the indelible mark a scent can leave on our memory. Smells transport us back to people and to places. (For me, the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle intertwines with childhood memories of traipsing through Florida on vacation, and still brings me joy when I smell it today.)  

Below, Mackintosh shares some of her favorite plants that Southerners associate with the scent of home, plus a few lesser-known picks for growing future memories. 

Gardenia

photo: gret Mackintosh
Blooming gardenias.

With their glossy dark-green leaves and abundant white flowers, gardenias have a powerful yet delicate perfume. “These blooms really fill a room with scent, and I love to put them in vases around the house and studio,” Mackintosh says. “The blooms don’t last very long, but the scent makes it worth it.” Mackintosh has two varieties in her yard, a smaller one that blooms first and then a larger one, providing her with fragrance for at least a month.


Tea olive

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When Mackintosh first bought her house back in 2007, she decided tea olives, with their notes of peach and jasmine, would be the very first thing she’d plant in her yard. “The blooms are insignificant, as a horticulturist would say, but smell so good,” she says. “They bloom on and off throughout the year, a major perk since most scented blooms are spring/summer.”


Magnolia

photo: gret Mackintosh

As the state flower for both Louisiana and Mississippi, the magnolia is a star in the South. “I’m a very scent-driven person, and this one takes me right down memory lane when I close my eyes,” Mackintosh says. “Growing up in Burlington, North Carolina, we had one in our backyard, and my grandfather had one in his yard, and I could climb up the branches like a ladder. It was so easy to climb and so fun, like your first sense of freedom, hiding out in that tree.”


Meyer lemon and other citrus blooms

photo: gret Mackintosh
Harvesting a Meyer lemon.

A cross between an orange and a lemon, this not-so-tart variety is one of Mackintosh’s most favored citrus trees. But the blooms of other citrus plants, such as grapefruit, lime, and other lemon types, are all wonderful scents, she says. (Plus, there’s the added bonus of fresh fruit at your doorstep.)


Angel’s trumpet

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Evocative of a small tree, this tropical plant puts out long, bell-shaped, “showy” flowers, Mackintosh says, and though it’s a fast grower, it dies back in the winter. “The flowers are large, come in a variety of colors, and attract all kinds of pollinators and hummingbirds—and smell the most potent at night,” she says.


Star jasmine

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Mackintosh uses this evergreen vine to add privacy to a fence or to grow up porch railings, where its gardenia-like fragrance can waft near the house. “I think jasmine is almost like the harbinger of spring here in Charleston,” she says. “It’s right when Charleston is kind of coming back to life.”


Evergreen clematis

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Come spring, this vine erupts in sweet-smelling white blooms grouped in long, delicate clusters. Mackintosh says this plant is a great choice for a year-round privacy screen on a fence or near a patio. (She also offers a pro tip: A lot of the best scented blooms are white.)


Bonus: Edible plants

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Mackintosh also favors plants that produce fruit as another source of aromatics for a garden. From blueberry bushes near the driveway and banana, pomegranate, and loquat trees around the landscape, Mackintosh tries to incorporate produce-growing picks wherever she can. “They all produce smaller amounts but very delicious fruit,” she says. “The bananas are small—the perfect size in my opinion—and sweet. In the mornings, Mack and I walk out to the berry bushes and pick and eat what’s ripe before the birds get to them.”


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