All it takes is a whiff to make me realize why Nancy and I still grow lilies.

From mid-July until the end of August, they fill the air with a rich fragrance that says “summer” to me. The flowers are beautiful, but they would not be worth fighting the lily leaf beetle if it were not for the aroma. 

That means you have to place your lilies so you can take the most advantage of them. We have some right by the back door, so we smell them every time we enter or leave the house. We have three clumps on the three sides of our patio, including one gorgeous clump of white lilies that is about 6 feet tall. We have another clump along our driveway, and we smell that one when we pick up the mail or newspaper.

We also cut the blossoms and bring them inside, so they send their perfume throughout the family room where we spend most of our time.

Keeping the lilies close to where you spend your time outdoors provides more than a close appreciation of their aromas. It also is a reminder to check for the lily leaf beetles, or you won’t have lilies to enjoy.

The beetles, which have been in Maine for about a decade, will probably be with us forever — or at least until the parasitic wasps that have been released to control them take hold. Systemic pest products can control them, but they are said to be harmful to bees and other beneficial insects.

Lilies are not the only plant for which fragrance is a major asset. Many flowers have a great fragrance, but some of them are milder than others. With some fragrant flowers, you have to get your nose right into the blossom to smell them. Others, while not as strong as the lilies, can be smelled from a distance while you’re outside.

Lilacs are a flower that I often smell before I see. The bushes bloom profusely, and in mid-May when the lilac hedge in front of our house is blooming, the spring aroma is heady. The common lilac, syringa vulgaris, seems to be more fragrant than many of the hybrids.

So even if you want several varieties to provide a different look and to extend the season for lilac bloom, you need some of the common varieties to get the aroma you want.

The lilacs are gone and the lilies are about to end their bloom season, but we can still look forward to clethra, one of the most fragrant of the fall-blooming shrubs.

Most clethra prefer a shady location and moist soil, and get to be about 6 feet tall, except in the dwarf versions. The flower spikes have a delicate arc to them and are not dramatic in appearance, but their delicate, spicy aroma makes them worth garden space.

Most clethra are white or a light pink. “Ruby Spice,” a Cary Award winner in 2000, is a deeper pink and keeps its color throughout the fall, so it is one of the favorites.

Bayberry, or myrica, is another wonderfully fragrant plant and a native, but is a bit different in that the fragrance comes from the foliage rather than the flowers.

While lilies led me to write this column about fragrance, in a walk around the garden, I found several other fragrant flowers.

The hyssop smelled almost like licorice, with spiky purple flowers on a plant that was about 4 feet tall. This plant was covered with bees, which is another good thing.

We don’t plant this anymore, but it self-seeds in the vegetable garden, and we let them grow where they don’t interfere with anything else. 

The bee balm, or monarda, was also in bloom with a nice, spicy fragrance on red flowers that are favored by butterflies and hummingbirds. We also have bee balm in a pale lavender and a bright pink, but the traditional red “Jacob Cline” shows off best.

The cimicifuga has a rich and fruity fragrance. Some phlox are fragrant; some are not.

While most hostas are planted for their foliage, they do produce flowers — some of which are more attractive than others. And some of those have a nice fragrance.

There are all sorts of herbs, including lavender, sage, catmint, rosemary and thyme, that provide a smorgasbord of smells.

And Russian sage, which isn’t quite an herb, is just coming into bloom, but its foliage has the scent that is almost sage but more exotic.

Some day lilies are fragrant, but not all of them. And even with the ones that are fragrant, you have to get quite close to them to detect the aroma.

Roses are blooming well, and many of them are fragrant, even some of the newer, disease-resistant varieties.

While we have some lilies next to our back door for their fragrance, there is another flower that we have there for its fragrance as well. Hyacinth used to be the most popular spring-blooming bulb in America, but it fell out of favor and was overtaken by tulips and daffodils.

But there is nothing like having the fragrance of hyacinth to greet you in early spring after a long winter. It is one of the signs that it is time to get out in the garden.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]


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