Desert Plants for Scented Gardens
Most of us plan our gardens with sight as the primary sense in consideration. We plant waves of bright flowering shrubs, punctuate the scenery with agaves and ocotillos, and contrast green and gray foliage for variety. This makes for an interesting garden, no doubt, but a garden full of color, texture, and form is still incomplete without plants that add the sensual element of smell.
Smell is our way of tasting the air, something we otherwise move through with little notice. The scents of plants like Cleveland sage, Arabian jasmine, and fragrant olive are so heady and delicious that they make the air come alive and make us thankful for every breath. These species do their magic well beyond their physical spaces too, perfuming the air that wafts through windows and doors and adding delight to a garden at night when sight is a poor sense for enjoying the outdoors
There is a large range of scented plants for desert gardens. They
include accent plants and trees, ground covers and shrubs. In fact, a
landscape could be designed using only scented plants. Some of the
plants have fragrant flowers and some have fragrant foliage which
releases its scent when wetted or rubbed. They need to be planted
where their scents are accessible. Strongly scented flowers and “wettable” plants like creosote can be planted anywhere because their
scents carry. Mildly scented flowers and plants that need to be rubbed
should be close to living or “traffic” areas. Night bloomers should be
in areas that are easy to reach in the dark.
Some scented plants also have medicinal and culinary uses. Creosote,
for example, has strong antibacterial properties and anyone who hasn’t
tasted tea made from Mexican anise (Tagetes lucida) is missing an
aromatic and delicious licorice flavored treat. A bonus of plants with
strong smelling foliage is that they are usually unpalatable to rabbits.
These are examples of the great scented plants for desert gardens.
Acacia berlandieri (Guajillo) is a small tree with soft, ferny foliage
that makes a great patio specimen. It is delightful in spring when it
bursts into bloom with fragrant white puffball flowers. A related
tree, Acacia farnesiana (Sweet acacia), is a more common landscape
plant in Green Valley and Tucson. Some selections of sweet acacia
bloom in fall, others in spring, and the strongly scented flowers
perfume the air for a long distance. It is a thorny and somewhat messy
tree that is best for natural landscapes.
Chrysactinia mexicana (Damianita) is a small evergreen shrub that looks
great in mass plantings where its clusters of yellow flowers make a
great showing. The foliage has a pleasant smell and is best planted
where it can be brushed against. It does not appear to be palatable to
Hyptis emoryi (Desert lavender) is a local plant that has soft, gray
fuzzy leaves with a pleasant lavender scent. It is a bit twiggy in
appearance but should still be planted close to walkways where it can
be appreciated. It is an excellent plant for very low water use
Jasminum sambac (Arabian jasmine) has flowers that rival orange
blossoms and plumeria in terms of intoxicating delight. It is a good
container plant with deep green leaves and a rather loose habit -- it
can’t decide whether it is a shrub or vine. It needs more water than
local desert species and grows best in part shade, so it is a very good
oasis zone plant. The flowers are used to flavor jasmine tea.
Larrea tridentata (Creosote) has sticky evergreen leaves. They are
covered with a shellac-like substance that perfumes the air after rains
here and the smell is associated with relief from brutal heat--one
reason locals love the smell. This is one tough plant that has many
landscape uses. Every yard in this area should have one!
Salvia clevelandii (Cleveland sage), with its blue spikes of flowers,
is a dramatic landscape plant that grows to 6 feet tall and wide. The
strong, spicy smell of the foliage is an added bonus when planting this
tough California native plant. The leaves can also be used in place of
culinary sage in cooking.
Tagetes lucida (Mexican anise) is an old favorite in Mexican kitchen
gardens. The whole plant has a pleasant licorice smell and makes an
outstanding tea that tastes of licorice and vanilla. It is a rather
loose plant that is good for informal gardens. In autumn, it is
covered in golden flowers. Mexican anise freezes back in winter, so
it’s only good for summer gardens.
Peniocereus greggii (Queen of the night) is a homely twig-like cactus
has large white flowers that bloom at night in the summer. The flowers
are delightfully fragrant can be smelled from a long way off. It is a
local plant that is rarely seen in its native habitat because it grows
up into creosotes or other bushes and is well camouflaged.
These are just a few of the wonderful plants that do double duty in a
garden by providing interest for the senses of sight and smell. Do
your nose a favor and make room for some of them in your landscape too!
Jasminum sambac (Arabian jasmine) Rock trumpet (Telosiphonia brachysiphon)
Here are some of our favorite scented desert plants:
Acacia berlandieri “Guajillo”
This ferny small tree makes a great patio specimen and is delightful in spring when it bursts with fragrant white puffball flowers. It is generally evergreen, but loses its leaves in cold winters.
Acacia constricta “Whitethorn acacia”
Whitethorn is a thorny native plant that grows as a shrub or small tree up to 20 feet tall. Fragrant yellow puffball flowers bloom in late spring or early summer. This acacia is very drought tolerant and is great for natural gardens but is deciduous and bare for several months.
Acacia farnesiana “Sweet acacia”
Sweet acacia is a common landscape tree in Tucson. Some selections bloom in fall, others in spring, and the strongly scented flowers perfume the air for a long distance. It is a thorny and somewhat messy tree that is best for natural landscapes.
Acacia greggii “Catclaw acacia”
Catclaw is another very tough, very thorny tree or shrub that is native to the Tucson area. It has pleasant smelling flowers in spring. It is an ideal tree for un-irrigated landscapes.
Chilopsis linearis “Desert willow”
Some selections of this tree have scented flowers that bloom through the entire warm season. It is a native riparian tree that grows best with extra water during hot months.
Ebenopsis ebano (Pithecellobium flexicaule) “Texas ebony”
Texas ebony is one of our best landscape specimen trees. It has deep green foliage, zigzag branches and fragrant white puffy flowers. It is rather slow growing and quite thorny.
Eucalyptus species “Gums”, “mallees”, etc.
Several kinds of eucalyptus are available for landscaping here. Most of them have foliage that emits a pleasant smell when wet or hot. Several of the commonly sold species are too large for most landscapes--stick with the smaller species.
Eysenhardtia orthocarpa “Kidneywood”
This native tree has nice smelling flowers and foliage. It is little used in landscapes but is a great butterfly attracting plant. It is very bare in winter and should be mixed with evergreen plants.
Havardia pallens “Tenaza”
Tenaza is an attractive small tree with puffy flowers in early summer. Its fragrant flowers draw lots of insect pollinators. This tree deserves greater use in Tucson landscapes.
Pinus halepensis “Aleppo pine”
The needles of this massive tree have a sweet piney smell in the heat of the summer. It fits only in large landscapes and needs wide spacing from hardscape elements and structures.
Pistacia lentiscus “Mastic tree”
Mastic tree is one of the cleanest small trees available for landscaping. It has stiff evergreen foliage and produces little mess. It is a great pool or patio tree but is slow growing.
Sophora secundiflora “Texas mountain laurel”
This is a well known tree or shrub with wisteria-like flowers that smell of grape gum. It is an evergreen plant that grows very slowly but flowers from a small size.
Vitex agnus-castus “Chaste tree”
Chaste tree is a slow growing deciduous tree that blooms in summer. It has fragrant leaves and purple, white, or pink spikes of flowers that produce round pepper-like berries. It is slow growing. The bark becomes very handsome as the tree ages.
Agastache cana “Bubblegum plant”
The evergreen foliage and pink flowers of this plant have a smell that is obvious from the name. It prefers filtered sun or part shade and supplemental water. It blooms summer to fall.
Aloysia gratissima (lycioides) “Bee brush”
A light vanilla scent emanates from the small white flowers of this shrub. It is great for attracting native bees and is a useful screen or background plant. It is semi-evergreen.
Aloysia triphylla “Lemon verbena”
This South American shrub is evergreen in no-freeze zones. Its leaves are useful for teas and occasional pruning keeps it from getting too leggy.
Aloysia wrightii “Wright’s bee bush”
This Arizona native shrub has aromatic leaves and white flowers in the summer. It is deciduous.
Artemisia ludoviciana “Western mugwort”
The soft gray foliage of this plant provides a nice contrast in a garden of cacti and succulents. The leaves have a strong smell. It spreads by runners and grows to 3 feet tall.
Berlandiera lyrata “Chocolate flower”
They’re no match for a See’s Candy Store, but the flowers of this small shrub do smell like chocolate. It blooms in summer and benefits from deadheading to keep it blooming.
Carissa grandiflora (macrocarpa) “Natal plum”
This shrub from southern Africa does well in frost-free places in Tucson. It has glossy evergreen foliage and is quite thorny. Its fragrant white flowers produce tasty red fruits.
Chrysactinia mexicana “Damianita’
Damianita is an evergreen small shrub that looks great in mass plantings where its clusters of yellow flowers make a great showing. The foliage has a pleasant smell and it is good to plant this where it will be brushed up against. It is probably not very palatable to rabbits.
Crossosoma bigelovii “Rhyolite bush”
This plant is rare in the nursery trade but is worth looking for. It has twiggy stems, pale green leaves, and fragrant white flowers in winter.
Datura wrightii “Sacred datura”, “Jimson weed”
All parts of this plant are poisonous and hallucinogenic. It has very large and fragrant white flowers that bloom on summer nights. They are pollinated by large hawk moths. Not a plant for landscapes that contain teenage boys.
Dyssodia acerosa and Dyssodia pentachaeta “Dyssodia”
These small shrublets reseed easily and form sweeps of yellow flowers in a landscape. They are easy to grow and the seed eating birds love them. The foliage has a pleasant smell.
Encelia frutescens “Green brittlebush”
This rather weedy plant is good for informal gardens. Unlike the other brittlebushes, its flowers have no petals and a very nice smell. Its dark green leaves feel like sandpaper and it spreads readily by seed.
Ericameria laricifolia “Turpentine bush”
Turpentine bush looks too green to be a Tucson native, but it is. Its fragrant, fine textured, evergreen foliage provides nice contrast to a mostly gray-green palette of plants. It is very tough and gets covered with yellow flowers in the fall.
Glandularia gooddingii (Verbena gooddingii) “Goodding verbena”
Fragrant purple flowers grace this plant in spring and sometimes in summer. It is a local plant that spreads easily by seed and looks great with yellow flowered shrubs.
Hyptis emoryi “Desert lavender”
Rubbing the soft, fuzzy leaves of this plant releases a lavender scent that is very pleasant. It is a bit twiggy but should still be planted close to walkways where it can be appreciated.
Jasminum sambac “Arabian jasmine”
The smell of this jasmine is right up there with orange blossoms and plumeria in terms of intoxicating delight. It is a good container plant with deep green leaves and a rather loose habit. It needs more water than local desert species and is best in part shade. The flowers are used to flavor jasmine tea.
Larrea tridentata “Creosote”
The leaves of creosote are covered with a shellac-like substance that creates the smell of rain in the southwest. This is one tough plant with many landscape uses and it grows quickly with a little extra water. Every yard in Tucson should have one.
Lavandula species “Lavender”
There are several lavender species available for planting here. They all have pleasant smelling foliage and flowers and do well in containers. They require well drained soil or they get root rot in the humid part of summer.
Leucophyllum laevigatum “Chihuahuan sage”
Chihuahuan sage has scented violet blue flowers in summer. It is a low care evergreen shrub.
Leucophyllum pruinosum “Fragrant rain sage”
This sage, also known as a “Texas ranger”, bears strongly scented purple flowers and silvery foliage. It flowers in summer.
Osmanthus fragrans “Sweet olive”
Okay, this isn’t a desert plant, but it does well in shade here and the apricot scented flowers are wonderful. This is a good plant for those shady places where local plants fail anyway.
Parthenium incanum “Mariola”
Mariola is common in this area but uncommon in the nurseries. It has soft scented foliage and tolerates terrible soils and full sun.
Penstemon palmeri “Palmer penstemon”
Penstemons look great here in spring but look ratty the rest of the year. They are worth it, though. This species has waxy gray-green leaves and 3 foot spikes of pink flowers that are scented--not a common trait for this genus.
Perovskia atriplicifolia “Russian sage”
The gray-green leaves and blue flowers of this species are scented. It is a deciduous plant that looks good with Mediterranean species like rosemary and other herbs.
Poliomintha maderensis “Mexican oregano”
Several plants have this common name, but this one is edible and tastes like oregano. It has small shiny leaves and purple flowers in summer and fall. It prefers light shade.
Psorothamnus spinosus “Smoke bush”
This small tree or large shrub has fragrant foliage, if that’s what you call it. It is mostly sharp twigs and no leaves. It is an interesting background plant and is very drought tolerant. It grows more quickly with occasional deep watering.
Rosmarinus officinalis “Rosemary”
Rosemary is a tough plant with many uses. The whole plant has a very strong smell and is essential in any cook’s garden. It has blue flowers in winter.
Salvia clevelandii “Cleveland sage”
The blue spikes of flowers on this plant are amazing to see and the smell of the foliage is almost as dramatic. Its leaves can be used in cooking or for tea (tea that tastes good???).
Santolina chamaecyparissus “Lavender cotton”
This plant is a common nursery commodity that is often used in containers and grown as an annual. It has soft gray foliage and yellow flowers.
Tagetes lemmonii “Mt. Lemmon marigold”
This aromatic shrub puts on a show of yellow flowers in the fall. Some people find the smell of the foliage overwhelming and some have an allergic reaction to it that resembles poison ivy. The seeds make it a good bird garden plant.
Tagetes lucida “Mexican anise”
The whole of this plant has a pleasant licorice smell and it makes an outstanding tea that tastes of licorice and vanilla. It freezes back in winter and doesn’t do much growing until the monsoons. It’s worth the wait.
Telosiphonia brachysiphon “Rock trumpet”
Rock trumpet is a local plant that is still rare in cultivation. It is a small shrub that grows in full or filtered sun and should be planted where its white flowers can be appreciated up close. They smell like Gardenia. It is sometimes available at the AZ-Sonora Desert Museum.
Teucrium chamaedrys “Germander”
Germander is an attractive groundcover with aromatic foliage and pink flowers.
Teucrium fruticans “Bush germander”
This is a large germander with gray leaves and blue flowers. It can grow to 8 feet across, so it needs room in the garden. Compact varieties are available.
Vallesia baileyana “Vallesia”
Vallesia is uncommon but shows up at nurseries on occasion. It is an evergreen shrub from Mexico that has nice smelling white flowers in the spring.
Lonicera japonica v. halliana “Japanese honeysuckle”
Honeysuckle has pleasant smelling white flowers and grows quickly up trellises or other structures. It is generally evergreen and needs moderate water for best growth.
Trachelospermum jasminioides “Star jasmine”
The flowers of this vine are very strongly scented and can be cloying at close range. It is beautiful in bloom, however, and is evergreen and fast growing.
Agave schottii “Shindagger” Shindagger is a small clumping agave that has nutmeg scented blooms. It grows well in containers and looks good in native plantings.
Bursera microphylla “Elephant tree” This succulent tree is great for container planting where frost is not a problem. The foliage smells of incense.
The flowers of this African succulent are fragrant at night in the late summer and early fall. It is an easy to grow plant for containers that develops an attractive swollen base and branches with large green leaves and spines. It is not tolerant of Tucson winters and needs some protection during our coldest nights.
Peniocereus greggii “Queen of the night”
This homely twig-like cactus has large white flowers in the summer. The flowers can be smelled from a long way off. It is best grown into a creosote or other desert bush as it does in nature.