Pleasures of the nose: fragrant flowers in early spring

By Glennis Byron
March 4, 2023
Filed in Flowers
3 minutes

March has arrived, coming in like the proverbial lion, and it’s a decidedly nasty day. Everyone is impatient for spring. Yesterday I made a gesture of faith and planted out my sweet peas: they are tough as old boots and sat outside in their pots most of the winter, surviving minus 5 and being buried in snow and hail without batting an eye. But even they are not well pleased by today’s icy winds.

One snowdrop does not a season make

Thoughts of fragrant sweet peas sent me wistfully searching for any hints of scent in my garden. The Viburnum odoratissimum and winter daphne are just starting to bud up. Lemon-scented Lonicera fragrantissima has few flowers as yet, but I’ve been able to pick a few budded stems to bring inside. But in terms of scent, it is still too early and there are meagre pickings.

The flowers that do offer some fragrance are generally not sitting at nose level, and I’m not kneeling in the cold damp soil for the sake of a sniff. Anyway, there is little chance of detecting their perfume outside on a windy March day.

Flower scents are a mixture of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), and it is the varied combinations of these compounds that produce the variety of scents. When temperatures begin to rise, those VOCs begin to evaporate and fragrance is released. We can force this process by cutting the flowers and bringing them into the house, placing them in a bright window in a warm room.

If you have early crocuses in flower, do bring some inside. It’s a dreadful indulgence, since they won’t last long, but what a delicious smell of flowery honey they release while they last. The best scented are C. chrysanthus, including such commonly available varieties as ‘Cream Beauty’, ‘E. A. Bowles’ and ‘Snow Bunting’. Let them sit on the mantle above your fireplace; they may go over even faster than they would in a bright window, but the scent is truly intoxicating.

Honey scented crocus

What I’m really missing though are the fragrant snowdrops. I have some ordinary snowdrops in the garden, and they are indeed making a pretty display with the blue Anemone Blanda. And they are a very elegant flower to display on their own in a small vase, or, as I have it below, using a frog with a shallow bowl. I love the simplicity of these flowers.

Unfortunately, the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is only delicately scented, and the double, ‘Flore Pleno’, only a little better. You need to find a specialist for the really fragrant ones. I remember bringing my first bunch of G. ‘S. Arnott into the warm house in Scotland and being knocked over by the powerful honeyed almond scent that filled the room.

The elegant snowdrop

For a good selection of snowdrops in the US, try Carolyn’s Shade Gardens; in the UK there are numerous options: start with the National Plant Collection of Galanthus in Aberdeenshire, which has nearly 500 varieties. In Canada, I haven’t found anyone who supplies anything out of the ordinary yet. Sigh. We can’t even buy proper snowdrops in the green, just dried out packs of common singles and common doubles, or little potted flowers in the spring containing a couple of bulbs for a few dollars. (You want hellebores, though, there’s a superabundance of beautiful varieties from which to choose.)

Those lucky enough to have access to specialist bulbs will want to keep an eye out for these super fragrant (and expensive) snowdrops: ‘Mrs MacNamara’, ‘Golden Plummet’, ‘The Apothecary’, and ‘Zwanenburg’. One flower will fill a room with fragrance and make a true galanthophile’s paradise.

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