When we think about our gardens, often our minds will turn first to how they look. But scent is another important aspect of a space and thinking about the aroma of the plants that we grow can also help us maximise the potential of any site.
Aromatic plants have a lot of potential to help us obtain yields and make our gardens the best they can be. Learning more about aromatic plants and their uses can be a great idea.
What are Aromatic Plants?
Aromatic plants are plants that contain odorous volatile substances, which occur as essential oil, green exudate, balsam and oleoresin in root, wood, stem, foliage, flowers or fruit.
Essential oils are highly concentrated secondary metabolites of diverse functions in a plant's system. They constitute hundreds of organic compounds including terpenoids, benzenoids, organic sulphur and compounds, which work at different levels.
These substances, which serve functions for the plants themselves, also have several uses for us, in the garden, around our homes, commercially in perfumery and food production, and medicinally. Sometimes, the aromas are used in the garden while the plant is in active growth. Sometimes, they are useful once extracted from the plant for human use.
Types of Aromatic Plants
There are numerous aromatic plants to consider growing in your garden, and which ones you might be able to choose will, of course, depend on where you live and the conditions to be found there.
When narrowing down the choices available, it can be helpful to think about the different categories of aromatic plants before delving deeper into where and how those plants grow, and, of course, their uses.
Plants that exude aromatic compounds can be:
- Trees – which may have fragrant wood, resin, bark or leaves. Or which have fragrant flowers and/or fruits or seeds.
- Shrubs & sub-shrubs – which may have fragrant berries, leaves or flowers.
- Climbers – which may have fragrant flowers (or strobili).
- Herbaceous plants – which may have fragrant flowers, seeds, leaves or roots.
A number of trees are well known for having fragrant wood (e.g. cedar), a resin used in perfumery or other scent-related applications (e.g frankincense, myrrh), aromatic bark (e.g. cinnamon, sassafras) leaves (e.g.tea tree) , flower buds (e.g. cloves) or flowers (e.g. orange blossom). Many, of course, also have aromatic fruits including, most notably perhaps, those in the citrus family. And some, like nutmeg or cardamom, have aromatic seeds.
Aromatic Shrubs & Sub-Shrubs
Shrubs and sub-shrubs can also be aromatic plants. For example, we might think of shrubs with fragrant flowers like roses, shrubs with aromatic berries, like juniper, those with fragrant leaves like bay... and a range of common culinary herbs native to the Mediterranean such as lavender, rosemary etc...
Aromatic climbers include those with fragrant flowers, like jasmine or honeysuckles, and also hops, with their aromatic cones, or strobili, which are used in making beer.
Aromatic Herbaceous Plants
There are also, of course, numerous non-woody herbaceous plants that are aromatic. Many common aromatic herbs that are used for culinary purposes fall within this category, along with numerous flowering plants with lovely scented blooms. There are also those with aromatic rhizomes (e.g. ginger, galangal) or roots (valerian) that have a wide range of uses.
The History of the Use of Aromatic Plants
Aromatic plants have been prized by humans and used for millennia.
The ancient Egyptians are known to have used aromatic perfumes and cedarwood oils as offerings to their deities, and used the resins of aromatics and plant extracts to create scented preparations, incense and traditional medicines. Hippocrates attempted to stop spread of plague in Athens with aromatic fumigation of the city streets.
Ancient Chinese and Indian cultures are also believed to have made various diverse uses of aromatic plants for spiritual, ritualistic, therapeutic and hygienic uses.
Knowledge or aromatics and perfumery is believed to have spread from Egypt to Persia and other parts of the Islamic world.
The Persian physician Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in Europe, is claimed to be the first to have derived the fragrance of flowers from distillation, though it is likely that it had been accomplished long before his time.
Oils are described by Dioscorides, the Greek physician, along with beliefs of the time regarding their healing properties, in his De Materia Medica, written in the first century.
The earliest record we have of the process of producing essential oils is from Ibn al-Baitar, who lived in Muslim Spain between 1188 and 1248.
Hildegard of Bingen used distilled lavender oil for medicinal treatments in the 12th century, and by the 15th century, distillation of many essential oils from aromatic plants had become more widespread.
Why Grow Aromatic Plants?
There are a number of very good reasons why we, as modern gardeners, should embrace the idea of growing aromatic plants where we live. These can be broken down into:
- Uses for aromatic plants in the garden, in active growth.
- Medicinal uses for aromatic plants.
- & other household and commercial uses for aromatic plants.
The services that aromatic plants can provide include keeping our gardens healthy, well-balanced and productive, enhancing human enjoyment of a space, keeping us healthy in body and mind, and keeping ourselves and our homes fragrant and clean.
Uses for Aromatic Plants in the Garden
Aromatic plants are useful not only for the yields that we can derive from their for human use, but also within a garden.
First of all, it can be useful to think about why we might want aromatic plants in our gardens.
The first and most obvious answer is that aromatic plants can fill a garden with their delightful scent, and enhance the sensory experience for us in spending time there. Creating a sensory garden involves engaging all the senses, including the olfactory, and fragrant aromatic plants can allow us to do just that.
But over and above their potential sensory appeal, aromatic plants also serve important functions in a garden ecosystem.
In many instances, certain compounds exuded by aromatic plants can help to confuse, distract or repel certain pest species and/ or attract beneficial insects to aid us in pollination and pest control.
So they can often be useful as companion plants, whether within guilds for fruit trees, other perennial polycultures, or in an annual/biennial vegetable garden.
Medicinal Uses for Aromatic Plants
Of course, many aromatic plants and the essential oils derived from them are believed or known to have beneficial properties for human health.
Sometimes, in the case of a number of common culinary herbs and spices derived from these plants, they are ingested to provide many benefits to the human body.
Sometimes, plants or the essential oils derived from them are applied topically to treat a range of ailments.
And sometimes, these plants are used in aromatherapy, though there is less medical evidence to confirm their efficacy.
There are, however, many examples of the health benefits of aromatic plants can be found in each of the first two categories. So growing different aromatic plants in your garden may allow you to take greater control over your health.
Note, however, that utilizing herbs and other aromatic plants medicinally should only be done, generally, under the advice of a trusted and experienced herbalist or natural medicine practitioner. These substances can heal – but they can potentially also harm when taken wrongly or used in the wrong ways.
Household & Commercial Uses for Aromatic Plants
Whether or not you explore the medicinal uses of aromatic plants, you can certainly explore a range of other uses for these plants. There are many ways that we can take advantage of certain properties of many aromatic plants within our homes.
One important area to look at is the use of certain aromatic plants or the essential oils derived from them in developing natural cleaning products for your home. This can be a great way to reduce your reliance on harmful products that come at great cost to the environment and may also pose a risk to your own health.
Making your own natural cleaning products can also help you cut down on single-use plastic coming into your home, and to move much closer to a zero-waste lifestyle.
You can also use various aromatic plants in your self-cleaning and natural beauty regime. Again, rather than utilizing harmful chemical products, you can make your own using aromatic plants from your garden. Many of these plants not only provide a pleasing fragrance, but also have other properties – they can have antibacterial, or antifungal properties for example. There are many aromatic plants that can be good for your hair and skin.
There is a huge range of aromatic plants that you might consider growing in your garden, or in another permaculture scheme, which not only smell great but also provide a range of other functions – within your garden and potentially also within your home.