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Written by: Catherine Browne

Do you stop to smell the flowers along your way? Maybe you should. Many indigenous plants can perfume your garden with their aromatic foliage and flowers, and they also have a range of uses from cooking flavourants to home remedies, cosmetics, potpourri and more. We encourage you to feed your soul and smell your garden while living locally and sustainably.

The Botanical Society of South Africa encourages you to know, grow and protect your indigenous flora and there are so many gorgeous scents to enjoy. In the SANBI Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and other fragrance gardens, a few lessons can be learnt about these ‘smellies’. Join us as we share some of these lessons with you:

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1. Some plants are fragrant in order to attract pollinators. Honey scents attract bees while sweet, pleasant scents attract butterflies and moths. Musty, yeasty scents are for mice, while spicy smells are for beetles and bees, and bad or foul smelling flowers are usually for flies.

Plactranthus being visited by a bee © Catherine Browne
Plactranthus being visited by a pollinator © Catherine Browne

2. Plants can’t run away from predators. Instead, some use chemicals and oils to defend themselves against being eaten. These chemicals either give off a smell that repels insects, or they make the leaves taste bad, indigestible or poisonous. Certain chemicals can also be released to fight off attacks by bacteria and fungi.

A butterfly on a pelargonium © Catherine Browne
A butterfly on a pelargonium © Catherine Browne

3. Plants also use chemicals to protect themselves in other ways. Sticky resins that coat the surface of leaves, help the plant to retain water in dry environments. Sticky resins also trap smaller insects, and make the leaves very difficult for larger insects and animals to chew. Some chemicals are also used to screen the leaf from harmful UV-B rays, in a similar way to sunscreen.

4. The fragrances, which are caused by aromatic oils, are produced in tiny glands. These glands are particularly visible on leaves of the buchu family (Rutaceae). Buchu has been used since ancient times to treat indigestion, stomach problems, flu and wounds. People have been using fragrant plants to make household remedies and medicines for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Many of the chemicals and oils that plants make and use to defend themselves against predators, and that give them fragrance, also kill germs and bugs that cause sickness and disease in people and animals. Knowing how to do this takes years of training, knowledge and skill.

5. A fragrant garden inspires the eye and pleasures the nose. Fragrance speaks directly to your emotions. It can stop you in your tracks, remind you of a time, a place or even a person. Add that extra element to your garden by incorporating fragrant plants into your design – placing aromatic plants beside the gate, or a narrow pathway where you’re sure to brush against them and release their fragrances. You can also place them in window boxes to perfume a room – pelargoniums are a great choice here.

A butterfly on a pelargonium © Catherine Browne
A butterfly on a pelargonium © Catherine Browne

6. Many of South Africa’s wild herbs can be used to flavour foods and make lovely edible garnish. Go wild in the kitchen and substitute everyday herbs and spices with some exciting indigenous replacements. Try wild mint, wild sage and wild rosemary in meat dishes, pelargoniums in puddings, cool drinks and cakes, and wild garlic in salads and stir-fries. Be sure to never eat a plant unless you are sure it is harmless and are 100% sure of the identification.

Wild mint © Catherine Browne
Wild mint © Catherine Browne

7. While gardening, choose plants that bloom at different seasons to ensure perfume all year round. Try night-scented flowers beside your outdoor entertainment area to make the most of their evening fragrance. Struthiola/gnidia – also known as young-lady-gad-about-at-night, or Juffertjie-roer-by-die-nag in Afrikaans, are great for their night-scented shrubs. Their sweet scent at night is so strong that it seems as if a young lady, all dressed up to go out for the evening, has just passed by and, although you missed seeing her, you can still smell her perfume on the night air. The flowers are also pale in colour, making them easier to see in the dark, and the reason they are only fragrant in the evenings and early morning is to attract moth pollinators. It would be a waste to advertise when their target market is asleep!

Young-lady-gad-about-at-night © Catherine Browne
Young-lady-gad-about-at-night © Catherine Browne

8. You can make a soft mattress that soothes you to sleep with the pleasant fragrance of a special scented plant found on the mountains of the Western Cape. Kooigoed in Afrikaans, which means stable bedding, was used as bedding by the Khoisan people. Their botanical name is Helichrysum and there are quite a few different species with soft, felted, fragrant leaves that you can use.

Kooigoed © Catherine Browne
Kooigoed © Catherine Browne

9. Planting aromatic indigenous plants attracts numerous pollinators that are beneficial to your garden, and increase biodiversity in urban spaces. Exploring natural scents within our very own plant realms is important for the protection of indigenous knowledge, allowing us to connect with and celebrate who and where we are.

Attract biodiversity to your garden © Catherine Browne
Attract biodiversity to your garden © Catherine Browne

Many of the SANBI National Botanical Gardens and local nurseries sell indigenous plants, including a range of fragrant choices. Two of the Botanical Society branches, namely Kirstenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal Coastal, host annual plant fairs where you can purchase great indigenous additions for your gardens and gain valuable advice on gardening.

Visitors enjoying the Kirstenbosch fragrance garden © Catherine Browne
Visitors enjoying the Kirstenbosch fragrance garden © Catherine Browne

If you are passionate about the outdoors and gardening, you can support and join like-minded folk in sharing knowledge and experiences about the environment and conservation, by becoming a member of the Botanical Society of South Africa. You can further support the Botanical Society by getting a MyPlanet card and making the Botanical Society your beneficiary.

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