When the subject of fragrance is discussed we gardeners tend to think about the familiar, sweetly-scented flowering climbers and shrubs, and we sometimes forget there is a large group of aromatic plants that guard their fragrance until their foliage is disturbed or they are crushed underfoot.
Most aromatic plants, some of which we refer to as ‘herbs’, grow best in a Mediterranean climate. South Africa also has many of its own species that should not be overlooked in favour of their exotic relatives. The more familiar aromatic plants are rosemary, lavender, lemon verbena, basil, thyme and origanum, to name but a few, while our local equivalents include the pelargoniums (also referred to as scented geraniums),
Agathosma betulina (one of the buchus), Eriocephalus africanus (also called ‘indigenous rosemary’) and the plectranthus, salvia and orthosiphon species. Thus these plants naturally lend themselves to inclusion in a garden with an indigenous theme.
Designing with aromatic plants
Be sure to position your aromatic plants where you can walk or sit beside them so that you can touch or pick the leaves to release their fragrance. Plant ground covers such as pennyroyal or lippia between pavers, grow them in containers in a courtyard, beside an entrance or on a patio where every time you pass you can touch their leaves, encouraging them to release their scent. Of course, it’s not only their aroma for which they are prized. Many of these plants are also used for culinary or medicinal purposes. Aromatic plants also entice an exciting array of insects into the garden, especially bees, several species of which are under threat of extinction. I weave aromatic plants throughout my garden beds to add texture and colour. They combine well with other shrubs, perennials and ground covers. The delicate bronze fennel, for instance, is an absolute showstopper, while pelargoniums add vibrant colour throughout the summer months.
Some exotic aromatics
Lavandula species (Lavenders)
Rosmarinue officinalis (Rosemary)
Aloysia triphylla (Lemon verbena)
Melissa officinalis (Mint)
Thymus species (Thymes)
Origanum vulgare (Origanum)
Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel)
Borago officinalis (Borage)
Mentha pulegium (Pennyroyal)
Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
While aromatic plants don’t necessarily thrive on neglect, they certainly do not require much pampering or feeding, making them ideal for a water-wise garden. They require sunshine, free-draining soil covered with a light layer of mulch, and an occasional deep watering to ensure their good health.
Choosing a theme
Aromatic plants evoke a sense of the Mediterranean with their textured, often hairy and non-reflective leaves – a far cry from the glossy foliage that one finds in a tropical garden. Since a large percentage of our aromatic plants occur naturally in and around the south-western Cape, which has hot, dry summers and rainfall in winter, they are ideal for a Mediterranean design. Bear in mind that if you live in a coastal area that experiences high summer rainfall then some of these plants will not thrive.
Ideas for courtyards
You can transform an uncomfortably hot courtyard into an attractive, relaxed Mediterranean retreat with a lemon tree for some shade, terracotta pots brimming with brightly coloured pelargoniums, lavenders and a selection of culinary herbs. A water feature will bring the cooling effects of water. A boring kitchen courtyard can become an instant chef’s delight if you fill an array of planters with herbs and leafy vegetables, and again, a lemon tree.
Formal or cottage
For a formal garden, many of the aromatic plants, for example the rosemary known as ‘McConnell’s Blue’, are ideal for clipped edging while Anisodontea scabrosa (pink mallow) trains happily into a standard. Left to their own devices, most aromatic plants will spread and tumble, creating a soft herbaceous border more suited to a cottage or country-styled garden.
All the plants mentioned in the lists will grow happily in containers, as long as the soil is not allowed to dry out completely. A light, free-draining potting mix is ideal for these plants.
Some indigenous aromatics
Eriocephalus africanus (Wild rosemary)
Orthosiphon labiatus (Shell bush)
Salvia africana-lutea (Dune salvia)
Salvia africana-caerulea (Wild sage)
Salvia chamelaeagnea (Rough blue sage)
Agathosma betulina (Buchu)
Anisodontea scabrosa (Pink mallow)