Potting up fragrant houseplants for the winter months brings lovely aroma to your home or office, and improves our sense of well-being.
by Frank Hyman
My first houseplants were gifts from an elderly neighbor: aloe, spider plant, snake plant, Swedish ivy. I was a young man on my own for the first time, and these neglect-hardy green statues made welcome roommates. Decades later, such leafy cohabitants came to seem a bit underwhelming, compared to my lush and fragrant outdoor garden. After all, nothing beats the short-day blues like coming home to the scent of a winter-blooming daphne in the garden. And few things counter the mind-numbing heat of summer like a whiff of ‘August Beauty’ gardenia. I decided I could replace my green statues with a bit of living, growing aromatherapy indoors.
Ironically, my first fragrant houseplant was also a gift from an elderly client: a huge pot of night-blooming cereus, or Epiphyllum oxypetalum.
The first time I saw a fist-size bloom on my plant it was about nine o’clock at night. I knew this flower would fade the next day and I wanted to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I was single then, so I called a gardening buddy. He and his wife were watching a movie at home, but he told me to come over as soon as he heard my story. I perched the cereus in its 10-gallon pot on some cardboard in the middle of their living room floor. We rotated between chatting, watching the movie and enjoying the slow unfolding of the flower’s petals. It was fully open by 10:30 p.m. The flower smelled like everything wonderful about summer—cut grass, a glass of tea, the air before it rains—and visually evoked the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. It was silky white, beautiful and inviting. And big enough to swallow a hamster. By midnight the flower was wilting about as fast as our attention.
Night-blooming cereus is an epiphyte and a thornless cactus, meaning in nature it grows in the crotches of tropical trees yet can handle drought. It likes a sandy, well-drained potting mix. Its gangly green stems are just long shoots, built to drape over a tree branch for support. The flattened (and, admittedly, unflattering) succulent leaves tolerate the shade of a tree canopy, making them well suited to a windowed room. But they can also enjoy morning sun outdoors in summer, and they will flower better with more light, fertilizer and water. Ours stands in the window of our west-facing living room; its branches shoot up and over the curtain rod. This way, when the white flowers open at night they dangle at eye level in front of the dark window.
This plant’s vine-ish and succulent nature makes it easy to propagate. Root three-inch-long stem cuttings and share them with friends. Be prepared for late-night calls when they get their first flower!
Another Fragrant Houseplant: Sambac Jasmine
My other fragrant indoor plants are less dramatic but bloom more often then cereus. When I saw the magical word “jasmine” in a tropical plant catalog I knew I had to order one. I chose Jasminum sambac ‘Maid of Orleans’ for its regular bursts of fragrant flowers. It’s also called Arabian jasmine, and you’ll see it described as a vine; however, it comes from south Asian jungles and it merely has long stems a couple of feet high. It appreciates rich, fertile potting soil and having its stems woven through a small trellis.
The one-inch-wide, star-like flowers also last only for a night—there’s no sense wasting them while you’re at work—but they come every other month in flushes that span a week or two. On some of the bleakest days of winter my living room smells of jasmine perfume. This is also the best jasmine for collecting flowers to steep as jasmine tea.
There are other fragrant jasmines, but they demand more light or water than ‘Maid of Orleans’. Moreover, J. polyanthum and J. officinale, for instance, need winter temperatures of 33 to 55˚F to reset their clocks for blooming in spring.
Frank Hyman is a content contributor to Horticulture. This article originally appeared in Horticulture November/December 2011 issue. Subscribe to Horticulture for more expert plant advice.