Fragrant Houseplants

Bring the scents of nature indoors

Frag CitrusPhotographed by Kindra Clineff A crowd pleaser, calamondin orange (x Citrofortunella microcarpa) produces a bounty of
delicious citrus fruit indoors.

During the growing season, coastal gardeners court sensory overload. With flowerbeds framing the horizon, wind fingering their hair, the suffused colors of flowers misted by ocean fogs, and the perfume of blossoms bantered around by sea breezes, the senses have it made.

Then comes the dormant season, and you could easily go into withdrawal. Thank goodness, houseplants come to the rescue. Separation anxiety from nature is no problem when you bring your garden indoors.

Houseplants make winter livable on many levels. Foremost, they keep active gardeners from going stir-crazy. As part of that initiative, they offer ample opportunity to play in the dirt with all the tactile pleasures it entails. They give you green to see and admire, the sound of water dribbling down to thirsty roots, and—if you are so inclined—the taste of herbs to render meals more appetizing.

But it may be your olfactory sense that reaps the greatest rewards from houseplants. Outdoors, all sorts of incoming stimuli dilute garden smells during the growing season. In your house, you can focus on fragrance without distractions. The aromas you choose are bottled up within your cozy little nest. It is a heady affair.

Frag JasminumsIndividually, Jasminum polyanthum flowers are demure; put them together,
and they produce a major wow!

If you quake in your garden boots and think brown thumbs with any mention of houseplants, then you need some consciousness-raising. Houseplants do not need to cause a cold sweat. Indeed, I have lived happily with them for most of my life and unravel their mysteries in my newest book, The Unexpected Houseplant (Timber Press, 2012). The secret ingredients are nothing more than a little sensitivity, a watering can, and the savvy to select plants that are not labor intensive. As a result, all my senses are the winners. Yet in winter, with the windows closed and the hunkered-down house feeling like my personal conservatory, it is my sense of smell that hits the jackpot. When I come home from the blustery outdoors and open the front door to my toasty, comfy domain, there is nothing I like better than the seductive aroma of citrus as a greeting. Don’t believe me? Give it a try.

 Frag NarcisusNarcissus tazetta ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ is a scented paperwhite.

If the spider plant that your friend’s cousin foisted on you in a dingy container comes to mind with any mention of houseplants, then you need an update. Houseplants can be masterpieces, stretching far beyond the usual plants offered up as in-home fare. Go for something imaginative and daring, flex your inner creative spirit, and slip into artistic mode. Marry a nifty plant with an equally handsome container, and you have something that will make your senses sit up and take notice.

Worried that not everyone in your family will agree on aroma? Consensus is no problem when you stick to closeted fragrant flowers. Inhaling them can be accomplished on a case-by-case basis. Yes, some plants send their scent floating gently into the atmosphere. Paperwhites and hyacinths come to mind immediately, but not all flowers are equally brazen. You can find less aggressive paperwhites—yellow blooming Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ is relatively soft spoken.

 Frag TrachelospermumTrachelospermum asiaticum is compact enough for any windowsill and emits
a scent that is universally adored.

Most fragrant plants are more discreet. Many—such as stephanotis—require that you come close to the blossom, engage your smelling apparatus, and take a deep breath in order to sample their good scents. Others send an undercurrent into the room that would make an air freshener, for example, seem relatively loud. For example, Trachelospermum asiaticum adds a barely perceptible cinnamon aroma to your home, especially after dark.

But fragrance may involve more than blossoms. Foliage can also be part of the olfactory experience. Many herbs have fragrant leaves—rosemary, thyme, and sage come to mind—but you must reach out and touch those herbs to discover their redolence. Not a bad thing to do, especially in winter, when you desperately need a little aromatic relief.

Rather than leaving your nose sniffing around garden shops for appropriate houseplants, here is a rundown of fragrant indoor plants that mind their manners, do not assault your sense of smell, do not tax any of your digits (green or otherwise), but do put winter on the map for all your senses.

Frag StephanotisEinstein the Maine coon kitten poses with Stephanotis floribunda.

Stephanotis floribunda
I can find many reasons to swoon over Stephanotis floribunda. Although the fragrance is compelling, that trait vies favorably with the overall physical beauty of this nearly un-killable but extremely comely vine. Although fragrant plants are not generally famed for their showy flowers, stephanotis is the exception. We are talking about long, tubular, trumpet-like flowers that look like they are made of wax. They are pure white—the most common color for fragrant flowers—and match the prevailing winter color scheme. Best of all, the flowers linger, hanging tight for weeks. Their scent is full-bodied and deep—pleasant in a baby powder sort of way. But those coquettish flowers generally require nose-to-blossom contact in order to sample the wares. For winter-holiday gift giving, some shops carry this vine wrapped into a garland shape. But as testimony to its staying power, nurseries also offer stephanotis for Valentine’s Day, and it is a mainstay for June weddings.

Osmanthus fragrans
Many fragrant flowers are absolute stunners, but osmanthus is never going to win any beauty contests. We are talking about a small shrub with woody stems and laurel-like leaves. The flowers are minute, creamy white, and nearly imperceptible. I am not calling osmanthus ugly, but nondescript would be an accurate assessment. On the other hand, it bowls you over from an aromatic point of view. The sweet olive, as it is often called, is one of the plant kingdom’s most delightful scents—high pitched and sweet, like someone sprinkled sugar on the air, with a hint of spice. It is heavenly, like nothing else you will find in New England in winter. Moreover, it tosses its scent into the room, often acting like a ventriloquist and throwing aroma into the far corners. Since it is pleasant rather than cloying, you can live with it. And it is not difficult to grow indoors—an east or west window, frequent water, and a little bit of fish emulsion do the trick.

Trachelospermum asiaticum
Vines can be wild cards indoors. For some reason, even seasoned gardeners freeze at the concept of hosting a vine on their windowsill. Vines do not scare me, but I would just as soon go for a scaled-down climber rather than wrestling with something that is forever groping the furniture. Trachelospermum asiaticum, also known as pinwheel jasmine, is definitely in the roaming category, but it keeps its acrobatics in the small and dainty department rather than growing by leaps and bounds. A little wire trellis to serve as a crutch is all it needs.

And that smell! I’m talking honey with a cinnamon-laced icing. Granted, the pinwheel jasmine swings into its main spurt of bud production in spring and autumn, but with good light, there will be a smattering in winter. Each flower looks like—you guessed it—a star-shaped pinwheel with furled petals. Or consider its big cousin, Trachelospermum jasminoides—a larger vine, requiring a sturdier support on which to romp and some serious real estate in your windowsill. It produces a crop of clear white pinwheel-shaped flowers through most of the year.

When it comes to fragrance, jasmine is the flag bearer. The flowers are so unremarkable that you would easily pass them by if they were not sending scent-signals floating. But they do pepper the air with some sensationally exotic aromas. Depending upon the jasmine that you select, you could get anything from eau de soap (Jasminum laurifolium var. laurifolium) to something more musky and sexy (Jasminum polyanthum). Jasmines also have a broad range of ease as houseplants. Beginners might stay with the easily hosted angel-wing jasmine, Jasminum laurifolium var. laurifolium, or twisted jasmine, Jasminum tortuosum. Advanced indoor gardeners could venture into Jasminum polyanthum, the winter-blooming jasmine that requires a chilly reception (50ºF at night and no warmer than 60ºF during the day in autumn) to develop buds. Most jasmines start off slightly bushy but develop into vines as they mature. Most are highly scented.

If ever there was a scent that is noncontroversial and universally adored, citrus boasts the congeniality award. The fact that citrus floats in the air is usually seen as a plus, given the fact that everyone wants it close by. No matter if you grow lemons, oranges, grapefruits, kumquats, or whatever, the flowers are tubular and white with a thicket of reproductive parts in the center. All citruses are aromatic. And the fact that flowers mark the first step toward juicy fruit is yet another reason to nurture these frost-tender bushes in your home. Of course, keep in mind that your citrus will eventually grow into a shrub that can be unwieldy on a windowsill. Indeed, you will need a sizable woody plant to shoulder the fruit crop of your dreams. However, compared to citrus growing in the ground in temperate regions, container-grown citruses generally remain relatively dwarfed. I have experienced great luck with both the flowers and fruit of the calamondin orange (x Citrofortunella microcarpa). The fact that it satiates more than one of my senses definitely endears it to me, especially in winter.

Frag Osmanthus2Osmanthus fragrans will impress your nose.


Light: Most flowering plants need good light in winter—that means a south-, east-, or west-facing window. When light levels are low, positioning plants close to panes unobstructed by evergreens or other buildings is key. Rotating plants keeps all angles basking in the glimmer glow.

Water: Many plants tolerate neglect once in a while, but omission on a regular basis leads to a tragic ending. Yet overwatering is also fraught with negative results. Although it is unwise to follow a rigid schedule for watering due to weather fluctuations, water your plants when soil feels dry to the touch.

Fertilize: Put your feeding schedule on hold during winter, when light levels are low. A food-on-demand policy would be the best way to treat your aromatic roommates, leaving the regular feeding regimen for seasons when light levels increase.

Pest Control: Healthy plants are not problem-prone. I repot when needed, giving houseplants organic soil and adequate but not overly generous root room. I do not stress them by forgetting to water, and I give them sufficient light.

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