When it comes to turning your garden into a haven of tranquillity, scent is frequently overlooked; most of us design our gardens with an emphasis on the visual. But creating a garden that's truly therapeutic involves engaging all of the senses - including smell, which has been proven to have a powerful effect on our well-being.
"Certain plant scents are immediately relaxing," says Sunita Teckchand, a clinical aromatherapist at Essensuals in Dubai. And, she adds, you don't need to visit a spa to reap the benefits that an aromatherapy treatment can bestow. "In aromatherapy the chemical constituents of the oils are important in releasing smells that relax the mind and work with the central nervous system. But any pleasant scent - rose, for example - has an immediate effect on the limbic system in the brain, in much the same way that a good perfume will evoke memories or pleasant thoughts."
Teckchand has a few suggestions for transporting the scented relaxation of the spa to your garden. "In a UAE garden you could plant several varieties that release a relaxing smell. Melissa (lemon balm), jasmine, marigold, frangipani and rose all help to relax the mind. If you take good care of it, lavender will also grow in this climate." Teckchand also grows several calm-inducing plants in her own garden and says she loves the heady scent of jasmine. "The jasmine is lovely at night as it blooms in the evenings and the scent is heavy and musty, quite relaxing. Frangipani also has a nice smell that is not as strong as jasmine. I find that the roses that grow here are not hugely fragrant. Melissa smells lovely during the day; however, great care is required for the plant to survive in the summer heat here. Lemon grass has no smell until you break the plant and rub it between your fingertips; that is a smell that offers a great way to induce relaxation as well."
When it comes to incorporating scent into your garden, the location of the plants is central to reaping the benefits of their aromatic properties. Some plants, such as Arabian jasmine, release their scents at night, adding another relaxing dimension to a garden after dark, when the sense of sight is diminished. It makes sense to have these plants near a terrace or balcony, where you would sit out in the evening.
Other fragrant plants work best when they are set near walkways or paths - especially if they are allowed to hang over the path so that you brush against them as you pass. Hyptis emoryi (Desert lavender) a rather twiggy plant, has furry little leaves and emits the smell of lavender, probably one of the scents most frequently associated with restfulness and relaxation. Another plus is its low water requirement and, as a bonus, Hyptis can be dried and enjoyed indoors.
Even if your garden is small or shaded, scented plants and flowers can be used to very pleasant effect, as many varieties will grow in pots, explains Vega Rochat, the senior landscape architect for Green Concepts. "My own terrace faces north so I have chosen plants that do well in partial shade. The challenge with having potted plants is monitoring and managing root growth, replacing the soil to give new nutrients and ameliorating plant health with the correct fertilisers."
When potting fragrant plants, she points out, your choice of pot is important. "Unpainted clay ones, which allow water to transpire, are best as they avoid humidity retention that burns the root system and the plant itself." Scented plants that can be used in cooking - basil, thyme, sage, marjoram and rosemary - are also calming, their distinctive scents tending to evoke powerful thoughts of warm, comforting dishes. They are a traditional choice for pots, to be placed on windowsills or balconies, and will do with partial light. However, don't think of them only for pots; sited out in the garden itself, their foliage is an attractive addition to an mixed planting scheme and, again, they are perfect for planting alongside paths where their scent will be released by brushing past them.
There are several scented plants that do well in arid gardens. The thorny sweet acacia releases a strong scent from its flowers and makes for a dramatic, wild-looking addition to a desert garden. "There are quite a few trees and plants that are tolerant of high salinity, drought and high summer humidity and that may also contribute to well-being and tranquillity," says Rochat. Among the best known, she lists Citrus limon (the common lemon tree, its flowers, foliage, twigs and fruit are all highly scented) and Cordia sebestena (a small tree with red flowers and fruit). Other fragrant trees include Mangifera indica (mango flowers have a gentle scent like lily-of-the-valley), Millingtonia hortensis (the winter-flowering "jasmine" tree), Plumeria obtusa (a small tree with dark waxy leaves, and flowers that release scent at night) and Cascalote (Caesalpinia), a small tree native to southern Mexico, with yellow flowers that are also gently fragrant.
Ultimately, taking the time to properly consider all five senses means that you will reap the rewards when enjoying your outdoor space. A garden that looks agreeable, is comfortable to sit in, and offers soothing sounds and scents, allows for a deeper sensory experience than one that has simply been designed and landscaped according to appearance. "A therapeutic garden of tranquillity is where all the spaces and elements are integrated as part of an organic whole, whose function is that of restoring the senses and creating a positive frame of mind," concludes Rochat. Of the features that contribute to well-being, the evocative power of scent should not be forgotten.