Ask most gardeners about sweet-smelling flowering shrubs for the garden and “gardenia” will be at the top of the list. This prom corsage favorite is a little too sickeningly-sweet for my taste, but it does a great job of perfuming the garden.


Ask most gardeners about sweet-smelling flowering shrubs for the garden and “gardenia” will be at the top of the list. This prom corsage favorite is a little too sickeningly-sweet for my taste, but it does a great job of perfuming the garden. 



Once you get past gardenia, the consensus on making your garden life sweet breaks down. But, luckily, there are lots of options for sweet-smelling shrubs in southeastern North Carolina.



One of my favorites produces a slightly spicy, subtle scent that drifts through the garden in October. Of course, we’re talking about Osmanthus – sometimes called false holly because two of the species have spiny leaves the resemble holly. Osmanthus fragrans – Fragrant Tea Olive – is adapted to our coastal conditions and lacks the holly-like leaves. While most Osmanthus have small, white flowers, there are varieties with pumpkin-colored blooms. These don’t usually bloom for long periods, but they make a great show for a week or so. 



These Osmanthus species all become fairly large, evergreen shrubs reaching 15 to 20 feet if left unpruned. 



Decent soil, light shade and some water to get them started are all that’s required to grow these plants. They will grow well in full sun but may have some discolored leaves during colder winters.



The Japanese garden at the New Hanover County Arboretum and Gardens uses false holly as a screen that is pruned to resemble mountains. 



A trip to the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh in late February reminded me of another sweet-smelling garden shrub that isn’t well-known. The Latin genus – Sarcococca – is a bit difficult to wrap the tongue around. But, this low to medium height evergreen should be considered for shady gardens. Often referred to as sweet box, one is a Himalayan native that struggles in our heat. Less hardy selections with the Latin names Sarcococca confusa and S. orientalis work pretty well in our area. These natives of China aren’t cold hardy enough to make it where the temperatures consistently drop below 10 degrees F, but handle the heat just fine. Nice, dark green foliage and mature heights of 2 to 4 feet make them greater filler for texture and sweet smells in late winter.



Those of you who would rather “go native” can add sweet pepperbush to the garden. Also known as summersweet this plant with the botanical name Clethra alnifolia sports pink or white flowers in July. Sometimes reaching 10 to 12 feet with a similar spread, Clethra tends to form colonies like many plants that are adapted to wet and shady areas. ‘Hummingbird’ is an excellent, compact form with white flowers. The pink selections have never impressed me but ‘Ruby Spice’ is one that you will find in nurseries. 



Place summersweet in that difficult place at the back of the border that’s a little shady and wet but isn’t prominent. Much of the year it’s a bit of a scraggly shrub. When the flowers appear and the scent drifts through the garden on a hot summer night, you’ll be glad you put up with its less-than-comely appearance the rest of the year.



There are plenty of wonderful annuals and perennials that will perfume the garden. Try an old favorite like sweet pea. If you can control them add ginger lilies for flowers and sweet scents in late summer. Red-flower versions even attract hummingbirds. 



With a little planning your garden life will be sweet through all the seasons



Even with the pleasant scents of gardenia and osmanthus drifting through the garden, there are always problems to solve. Check out our website ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610. You can also find great local information at nhcarboretum.com and on Facebook. Just search for “New Hanover County Arboretum.



 



Al Hight is the extension director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in New Hanover County. Contact him at 910-798-7666.