In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
February, 2001
Regional Report

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The fragrance of sweet acacia in bloom wafts over the landscape while the attractive yellow flowers are a welcome sign of spring.

Fragrant Plants

When choosing plants, I think many of us make selections based on bloom color. Fragrance is an afterthought, or perhaps a lucky addition. But scented plants can add a soothing element to our gardens. Place them close to patios, walkways, windows, and doors and enjoy the benefits of "aromatherapy."

Fragrant Trees

The sweet acacia tree (Acacia smallii or A. farnesiana) blooms in late winter or early spring with tiny yellow puffballs that give off an incredibly sweet vanilla scent. The tree stays fairly small, growing only about 20 feet high and wide, which is great for gardeners with small yards. It has an attractive multiple-stemmed trunk, is drought tolerant, and is evergreen. A drawback is that it drops a fair amount of litter - flowers, leaves, and seed pods.

Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) features clusters of lavender flowers that smell like grape Kool-Aid in spring. Kool-Aid may not be everyone's favorite drink, but it brings back memories of childhood for many, and that usually produces a smile when gardeners first get a whiff of its potent scent. It's another small tree - almost shrublike for the first few years, though it eventually reaches 15 feet high and 10 feet wide. On the down side, it has a tough, cream-colored bean pod with bright orange seeds that are poisonous.

Fragrant Shrubs

Popcorn cassia (Cassia didyombotrya) looks like many of the more common cassias, but its leaves are softer and more velvetlike. Plus, it smells of popcorn - really!

Any of the salvias provide a wonderful sage smell when their foliage is brushed, and there are many sizes, foliage colors, and bloom colors to choose from. Consider Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), autumn sage (S. greggii), or chaparral sage (S. clevelandii).

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), a signature plant of the Sonora desert, has a fresh scent, especially after rain. If you happen to be walking in the desert after a rainfall and wondering what that great smell is - it's no doubt creosote.

Fragrant Perennials

Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) features a yellow daisylike bloom with the scent of chocolate. It grows in a clump and can reach about 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall. It can be sown from seed or transplanted from 1-gallon pots. It's best planted close to walkways to take advantage of its scent.

Scented geraniums (not to be confused with the Martha Washington-type geraniums) are also terrific plants to brush up against. The attractive foliage is usually highly lobed, and the leaves and flowers are used in cooking and potpourri. Their wide variety of scents and flavors include citrus, rose, lemon, ginger, and peppermint. Scented geraniums grow best in full sun with moderate water.


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