Gardening: Plant fragrances to lift the spirits

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Sandy and I (Sandy stewards the butterfly garden at the Rochester OPC), gave a program on “fragrance in the garden.” Our audience was a group of sight-impaired senior citizens so touring the garden was not an option for everyone and we also had to keep to the 6 foot social distance rule. 

So, Sandy and I collected the leaves and flowers of aromatic plants we grow in the OPC to pass for a quick sniff.  And in spite of the fact everyone was wearing masks, our program was a big success.   

Our audience was sitting at long tables under a large tent set up in front of our water garden, and as we gave the program, our very large bullfrog and his mate were having their own conversation. 

When we think about fragrance, flowers usually come to mind, but most of our samples were actually the aromatic leaves of plants. Most members of the mint family keep their scent in the fine hairs that cover their leaves. The carrot crowd holds aromatic essential oils in tubes in their seed and also in their stems and roots.

Most members of the mint family keep their scent in the fine hairs that cover their leaves.

Fragrance broadcasted from flowers attract pollinators to do their thing and because they only last for a few weeks, the essence can be quite strong. 

Leaves, on the other hand, don’t need pollination, so they must be rubbed or crushed to release their scent. In some cases, plants use their scent to keep animals from eating them. Deer and rabbits don’t chew on the plants in our little herb garden.

An interesting thing happened while preparing for that program.  As Sandy and I went through the garden brushing and crushing leaves and smelling various aromas, I found myself feeling calm, collected and happy. Yes, happy. Having spent the past several months sheltering in place alone, happy is not a word I use all too often these days.  Sad, lonely and even anxious seem to be the norm now. 

When I got home, I pulled Kathi Keville’s book, "The Aromatherapy Garden: Growing Fragrant Plant’s for Happiness and Well-Being" (Timber Press) from my bookshelf. Time for a reread. 

I also invested in a large pot of sweet basil that now sits on my kitchen counter. I stroke the leaves and take a quick whiff every time I go by it. According to the 16th-century herbalist John Gerard, it taketh away sorrowfulness. I think he was right.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at