Summer is full of wonderful scents and it is impossible to pick just one favourite. I won’t even try to choose two favourites but today I present an old favourite and a plant that is new to me and has me won over.
Firstly the wonderfully delicious fragrance of heliotrope or cherry pie. This tender shrub from Peru has rather coarse, deeply veined leaves and large heads of purple flowers that are not individually large but their number makes up for this. They have a sweet, rather talcum powder-like scent that is also distinctly ‘cherry pie’, however unlikely that may seem. I grew up with the old, cuttings-raised cultivars of this and we overwintered them so we could create ‘standard’ plants and bushes more than 80cm high – a bit of an effort but so worth it. Plant breeders have worked to create dwarf, seed-raised types such as ‘Marina’ that flower the first year from seed and while this is a great achievement and has meant that heliotrope is more garden centre-friendly it is a shame that some of the character has been bred out of the plant. Fortunately the scent has not been bred out at the same time so we can all enjoy the scent. Unfortunately, even though these seed-raised plants flower relatively quickly from seed they are beaten by marigolds and pansies so the plants don’t appear in garden centres with the rest of bedding in spring and the plants look a bit dull before they bloom so you probably won’t find them in garden centres till July or August.
And now to the new discovery. Last year I bought a plant at the end of the season labelled the ‘Cola plant’ complete with cola bottle label. I usually steer clear of such gimmicky plants but was intrigued and since it was on a very generous offer I bought one. Suspecting I would return to Ireland, I did not plant it out but left it in the pot and it survived winter outside (just about) and the straggly plant made the return journey, was cut back hard and planted out and has now had a dozen cuttings taken off it and they have all rooted well.
The cola plant is a form of Artemisia abrotanum or southernwood. Artemisias are a varied lot and although some are ornamental, a lot are rather scruffy weeds. When it comes to their use as herbs they get a mixed review too. Some are used to treat intestinal worms while others, with their bitter taste, are used to flavour liqueurs. These include Vermouth and the infamous Absinthe and their use as flavourings has risks because some species can cause organ failures and hallucination.
The cola plant is a selection of the species and while it usually has rather unpleasantly aromatic leaves, this one has feathery foliage that is delightfully fragrant. It may seem too much to believe but brushing against the foliage releases a wonderful sweet scent that is fruity and just like cola. This is quite something since it is hard enough to describe cola in the first place. If anything, it smells of cola bottle sweets rather than cola. It is a low shrub that will get straggly quite quickly so benefits from a spring haircut. Plant it in a sunny spot and in dry soil so that it survives the winter.
And plant it somewhere you walk past lots – the fragrance is a real pick-me-up.