Growing Concerns 574: Finding scents in flowers and weeds

Early Summer!

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Follow your nose to find a scented flower or rout a pesky weed


Dear Janet,

I walk past a garden on my way to work. Something smells wonderful in there but I can't figure out what it is. I've stuck my nose in every flower I see and can't find it. Any ideas what could be going on?


Dear D.O.,

Let's look at two possibilities. One involves time and the other, space.

Scent comes from liquid secreted by a flower as it matures and is ready for pollination. The liquid oxidizes and its chemical components waft around. This attracts a bee, moth, bird or other creature to sip some nectar and carry ripe pollen between flowers.

Each plant species evolved to use specific pollinators. Some that are paired with nocturnal creatures begin producing scent at dusk and quit at daybreak. Most day-pollinated flowers work the opposite shift.

Do you hurry past in the morning, then  hunt the fragrance late in the day, or vice versa? If so, the blossoms you seek may be "off duty."

Flowers also cease producing scent and close once they are pollinated, shifting resources to ripening seed. This can happen rapidly if there are plenty of pollinators. It amazes me how quickly blooms fade at the zoo's butterfly exhibit. Yet it only makes sense, as those flowers are serviced by an unnaturally high number of thirsty insects.

The second possibility is that you're looking in the wrong place.

Don't stop at the flowers. Many leaves are aromatic due to oils that protect them from hot sun and high heat. So stoop lower as you hunt, to rustle the greenery to see if it releases a scent.

Look up, too. Some people overlook the tiny blossoms borne by some trees and shrubs, even while noticing their odor. Linden trees have been in bloom recently, for instance. From on high they can shed perfume for hundreds of feet.

Even if you don't find it, isn't the search fun?


Dear Janet,

Please tell me how to get rid of mint in the garden.


Dear C.G.,

You can move and start a new garden on mint-free ground. Short of that, dig it out or kill it with a systemic herbicide such as Round-up.

Dab the herbicide on every bit of mint. Don't drip on anything else and keep the mint from touching other plants until the weed killer dries. Then wait and watch while the mint metabolizes the poison, shifts it into its roots and dies. Since this tactic can ruin a bed's look for weeks, I usually choose to dig.

The good news is that mints are shallow rooted. Unlike some thistle, poppies and other weeds with roots that dive deep and spread laterally from there, mints crawl along at or near the surface.

The roots are scented, too, like the foliage. So there's no doubt which root to pull as you trace a mint's path through a bed.

You may have to lift good perennials to remove mint if both have shallow roots and become a tangle. If you want to go easier on the desirable plants, wait to dig after summer's heat breaks in late August. Meanwhile remove all the mint you can. After chasing it into crowns of surface-rooted keepers, check back weekly to nip off any mint shoots that develop.


Dear Janet,

Neither my peonies or my lilac bushes had fragrance this year. For several years this has been happening. Could you advise me what to do?


Dear D.K.,

Some plants produce less fragrance on cool days than warm. Also, scent travels poorly in the rain. There were many wet, chill days this May so perhaps you missed the few chances there were to catch those aromas.

Maybe you've changed position relative to the plants or surroundings have changed to alter air currents. In either case the scent may be there but elude you.

A man I know built a deck and then realized he'd thereby removed himself to upwind of his roses. Another friend thought for several years that her madonna lily (Lilium candidum) was diminishing in fragrance before realizing that a nearby hedge had matured, restricting air flow across the lily bed.

Short reports

Fragrant foliage all year 'round in an herb bed.

Thyme, lavender, sage, santolina and other evergreen herbs can delight the nose now and even in winter. It's a good time to visit an herb farm or the herb department at a garden center, sample the smells and bring some home.


Green thumbs up

to those who plant for the unseen smile. This includes garden clubs, Master Gardener groups and beautification teams who sow wildflowers along a highway or daffodils at town entries. It also covers individuals who deliberately point their sunflowers' faces to a road beyond their back fence or garden an easement seen only from a public way. It's very kind to give when you won't see the effect your gift has on others. Thank you!


Green thumbs down

to narrow thinking when it comes to raising a mound or "berm." To elevate a privacy planting of arborvitae, juniper, lilac or ornamental grass make the mound wide with only very gentle slopes on its sides. Make it five feet wide for every foot in soil depth and indent the top where you'll plant. If you don't the plants will suffer as rain and irrigation water zip down the sides, away from the roots.

Originally published 7/10/04




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