lowers smell good for one reason only — so they can attract pollinating insects and ensure their survival. Scent is advertising and we are the lucky bystanders.
But flowers don’t smell like they used to, says the landscape designer Isabel Bannerman in Scent Magic, a new book that follows its nose to some intriguing places.
According to a study by the University of Virginia, air pollution not only destroys smell molecules released by flowers by up to 90 per cent, but also reduces the distance scent can travel.
Before the Industrial Revolution flowers smelled almost 10 times more noticeably than they do now.
Isabel, together with her husband Julian, has created some of the most romantic gardens in the country, from their turreted home Trematon Castle in Cornwall to the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove.
She is something of a flower fragrance sommelier, capturing floral scents as though they were fine wines.
London’s sheltered spaces and relatively mild winters make it possible to grow some of the most delicious scents in our gardens, from shrubs and climbers to bulbs for table-top pots at perfect nose height.
But with traffic fumes to compete with, urban scented plants have to be really powerful to punch through.
Isabel's top tips for Londoners
Here are Isabel Bannerman’s top choices for Londoners looking for year-round nose appeal:
If you have room for a small evergreen shrub either in pots or the ground, sweet box — sarcococca — is a great replacement for box hedging with tiny white flowers, says Bannerman. “Hookeriana var digyna has the best scent. It’s great for shady corners.”
Or how about the deep-pink Japanese apricot prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ that flowers in February?
Tie it against a wall and keep cutting it back to keep it in check, bringing flowering stems into the house to release the scent.
“It looks like a piece of jewellery or Japanese porcelain with an almondy, plummy scent.”
Plant scented bulbs now in pots and window boxes, Bannerman suggests.
Snowdrop Sam Arnott will flower first and then, in February, the tiny winter iris Harmony is “violet flashed with hi-viz yellow — and the sniff of cooling violets”.
The compact shrub daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ will flower from early spring and does really well in London, whether in pots or the garden, says Bannerman. “It looks neat all year and it smells of lemon sherbet.”
Scented ‘Tête-à-tête’ narcissi are great for window boxes and pots or, if you prefer a paler yellow, Thalia: “It’s a sweet but spicy scent.”
Another Bannerman favourite for later in spring is wild stock matthiola incana ‘Pillow Talk’.
With white flowers and grey, felty leaves, it’s beautiful in pots as well as the garden and will last for several years if you keep cutting it back and deadheading.
“Night scented stock smells even better but looks a little scraggy in containers so is better in garden soil.”
Order plug plants now and you will have flowers next spring. And don’t forget the tobacco plant nicotiana, perhaps the sweetest scent of all to attract the night-flying insects that pollinate it when it opens in the evening.
May in London is wisteria time and, if you’re looking for a fragrant one, Bannerman recommends Chinese wisteria (wisteria sinensis).
Londoners love growing star jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides) but for the best scented climber, you want Jasminum polyanthum, says Bannerman.
What about roses? Bannerman rates sumptuous red Étoile de Hollande and pink Himalayan Musk, both climbers.
“But if I had to have one rose in London for scent, I would have the bright crimson rosa rubiginosa ‘La Belle Distinguée’ which makes a small, bushy shrub. The whole plant smells of orchards. Every time it rains you get these appley wafts.”
If you want scented pots for a sheltered courtyard or balcony, you can’t beat lilies (lilium regale) and now is the time to plant bulbs.
“We really like the yellow-orange one, African Queen, which smells gingery and spicy.”
Bannerman also rates scented pelargoniums, particularly tomentosum with bright green, velvety leaves that smell of peppermint when you rub them.
September is not an obvious time for fragrant flowers, but Bannerman is a big fan of the Abyssinian gladiolus (gladiolus murialae), an exotic orchid lookalike that thrives in pots.
“It’s dead easy to grow, just plant corms now. It has become really trendy and smells like frangipani.”
Scent Magic: Notes from a Gardener by Isabel Bannerman, is published by Pimpernel Press, £30