Aromatherapy begins with plants. Long before most of us gardeners had ever heard the term “aromatherapy”, we were practicing it in practical ways. We placed lemon verbena along pathways so we could brush against it for a quick lift from its fragrance. We planted creeping thyme in pathway cracks so we could appreciate its soothing, warm smell as we walked on it. And we looked forward to sitting on a chamomile lawn and experiencing its relaxing scent, with the prospect of later sipping a fragrant tea made from its flowers.
My nose has always played a major role in gardening decisions. I plant herbs and flowers with the fragrances I most enjoy under windows that are often open. The scent of blue sage (Salvia clevelandii), one of my favorites, travels through the house, and I especially appreciate it in autumn. I like to place aromatic herbs in containers near the house in areas where guests always notice them.
Outside the garden, aromatherapy is the use of essential oils, either by inhaling them or applying them to skin, for therapeutic or aesthetic purposes. But these dear little bottles of fragrant oils, which have been shown in scientific studies to have physiological and psychological benefits, originate in plants. There’s no reason you can’t reap the same aromatherapeutic benefits while working or relaxing in your garden.
The power of smell
For many of us, our strongest childhood memories are associated with smell. I remember the soothing fragrance of rugosa roses growing along the New England coast, as well as its calming effect on me. When the scent of gardenias blows into the house on the warm summer air, romance stirs my soul. Intense memories from my past are imprinted on my brain alongside fragrance.
Smell is our most primitive sense. Memories recalled by smells often feel more vivid and emotional than those associated with sights, sounds and tastes. Unlike the other sense organs, the nose sends information directly to the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain concerned with memory and emotion.
We all respond differently to smells, but some responses seem to be universal. Even in medieval times, it was believed that the scent of basil would stimulate the heart and take away melancholy and that smelling wild thyme could lift the spirits and vital energies.
The human nose is capable of recognizing 10,000 scents. Scent in plants comes from volatile oils found in the glands of flowers, leaves, branches, seeds, bark, and, in some cases, roots. More than 3,000 chemically different oils have been identified from at least eighty-seven families of plants.
Design for fragrance
The garden offers endless opportunities for gardeners to enhance their sense of smell, to calm or energize their spirits and to visit their memories. By planting a wide array of fragrant plants, including those known to have aromatherapeutic effects, you can have new aromas with each change of season.
The first step in designing an aromatherapy garden is to create a sense of place, an outdoor garden room. An enclosed space can become your “secret” garden, a haven for contemplation and solitude or a place to entertain. Use existing landscaping and the architectural features of surrounding buildings and fences, and tap your own style sense for inspiration. If possible, site this garden against a fence or wall, then add tall shrubs, trees, and fast-growing vines such as hops.
An enclosed space will encourage volatilizing oils to linger in the air. This kind of garden also has a sense of intimacy that’s difficult to accomplish in a more open garden.
Using gravel, flagstones or unmortared brick on a footpath or patio allows plenty of space to plant low-growing herbs in the cracks, which lets you enjoy their fragrances whenever you step on them. Some that are especially suited for this purpose are pennyroyal, Roman chamomile, and caraway thyme.
Garden beds that curve around the edges of the patio can soften its lines and create a feeling of depth at the back of the garden. Place taller plants toward the rear corners, with progressively shorter ones toward the center. Let colors and textures play off each other in pleasing ways, but be sure to site the plants you use often where you can get at them easily.
Also consider the way the fragrances will mingle in the air. A combination of strong, sweet smells such as those of gardenia and jasmine can be overpowering, so space these plants some distance apart. Planting in containers enables you to have tender, fragrant plants such as eucalyptus, myrtle, and bay in your garden while you’re there to enjoy them. In winter, you can move them inside and enjoy them all over again.
Use the fragrance
Someone with an aromatherapy garden can not only enjoy its fragrant plants outdoors from a comfortable spot, but also have the convenience of easy harvesting. Being able to pick a few leaves from a rose geranium or petals from a rosebush at sunset to throw into my evening bath is for me a simple, exquisite pleasure.
The ancients used fragrant plants to heal the mind, spirit, and body, strewing them on the floors of homes and churches, burning them in rituals of purification and spirituality, and using them for all occasions. Here are some suggestions for using the harvest from your aromatherapy garden to infuse your home and your life with fragrance.
• Simmer herbs to waft a pleasant fragrance throughout the house. My favorite simmering-potpourri blend of star anise, cinnamon and vetiver is warming and uplifting, especially during winter.
• For a relaxing herbal bath, place leaves of rosemary and lemongrass and flowers of lavender in a small cloth bag to hang on the faucet or float in the water. To maximize benefits to both your spirit and your skin, steep the bath bag in hot water but let the water cool to just warm before stepping into the tub.
• Stuff eucalyptus leaves and lavender flowers into a bottle of almond oil. After a few weeks, the oil will have picked up the herbal fragrances and become a great massage oil to use on aching muscles and joints.
• Fill a small pillow with calming herbs such as hops, lavender, and/or chamomile. Slip it inside the pillowcase of your regular pillow, then relax as the weight of your head releases the fragrant oils.
Holly Shimizu is managing director of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia.
Betty, Patricia. Aromatherapy: A Personal Journey Through Your Senses. New York: Carnegie Press, 1994.
Lawless, Julia. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1995.
Wormwood, Valerie Ann. 1991. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. San Rafael, California: New World Library, 1991.