Gifts of Fragrance in the Early Spring Garden 

by Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Elaine Mills

As I knelt in the Asian section of the Glencarlyn Library Community  Garden to prune back the dried up heart-shaped leaves of Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ , the perennial commonly called Bishop’s Hat, Barrenwort, or Fairy Wings, I suddenly was aware of a wonderful fragrance. Looking around, I could not figure out where the scent was coming from. It was only the beginning of March. Yes, it has been a warm winter, but what could be nearby that smelled so deliciously fragrant? Then I noticed that my knees were almost touching the tiniest of flowers on the small evergreen shrub officially named Sarcococca ruscifolia, but more often known as Fragrant Sweet Box. It was a heavenly scent. Being close enough to the ground allowed me to enjoy its spring gift!

How often do we miss things because we are just too busy to “slow down and smell the flowers?”  I’ve been working in the Library Garden for over 20 years and the Sweet Box plants were donated to our Asian Garden by Glencarlyn plantswoman Tina Greene at least 12 years ago. What a “sweet” gift only lately acknowledged and truly appreciated. From now on I will return to Tina’s gift with my nose tuned in and my heart full of gratitude.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ close-up.

You will need to look up to notice this spring gift! Take/make time to walk by the front of the Library during March and early April to watch the buds swell, unfold, and fill the air with the delicate sweet scent of our ‘Elizabeth’ Magnolia when it comes into bloom. Hundreds of light yellow flowers sway lightly, covering her branches before the leaves emerge. ‘Elizabeth’ is a cross between Magnolia acuminata (our native cucumber tree) and M. denudata (Yulan magnolia). It grows, over time, into a magnificent 20-25’ deciduous magnolia tree producing awe and wonder in all who behold her each spring.


As Adrian Higgins noted in his April 5, 2012 article The Fragrant Garden, “Spring is the time plants are feverishly blooming and competing for the attention of pollinators, and fragrance is a way to turn a bee’s head.”  At the  Library Garden, we plant many bulbs, flowering perennials, shrubs, vines and small trees to attract pollinators and create a healthy ecosystem for a variety of critters through all the seasons of the year.  Take time this spring to both notice and get down or lean up close enough to breathe in and enjoy the scent of at least some of the following: hyacinths, daffodils, lily of the valley, lilac, iris, Mr. Lincoln rose, violets, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (Virginia sweetspire) and Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf fothergilla). 

As summer arrives, lavenders, oriental lilies, Lonicera x heckrotii ‘Gold Flame’ (honeysuckle), and Clethra alnifolia (summersweet or sweet pepperbush) plus all the herbs bring their delightful fragrances to the Garden.

Lonicera x heckrotii ‘Gold Flame’ (honeysuckle) flower detail in August.

We admit to wanting to entice you to learn, to see how easy it can be to grow scented and beautiful plants in your own gardens or pots, but mostly we hope that you are persuaded to slow down, breathe deeply, take in the colors, scents, and textures; to relax, and to get away from the many pressures of living in a highly dynamic urban culture.

Come to walk through, to see what is newly emerging, to sit in the gazebo, to kneel down and notice the great variety of living things this one small piece of earth holds.  We hope you will feel renewed as you experience the renewal that happens each year here in the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden located at 300 S. Kensington Street in Arlington 22204.

The Library Garden is one of several demonstration gardens maintained by Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteers in Alexandria and Arlington.

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