Bringing spring's sweet air indoors

Fragrant plants placed on a windowsill make the best air freshener

In The Garden

January 18, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Fragrance is like comfort food -- it lifts flagging spirits and feeds the soul. Yet this time of year, the outdoors smells like gunmetal. And some engine exhaust. It's like an olfactory gulag out there, and there's little we can do to improve it.

But while we can't perfume the outdoors (too cold, too big), we can wonderfully enhance our interiors with fragrant windowsills. Better than chemicals (and more beautiful besides), flowers, forced bulbs and plants on a windowsill can transform a stuffy room and with it, the occupants.

Why windowsills?

"As soon as that sun hits warm pine boughs or flowers, they begin to release their fragrance," says Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Farm, Home and Garden in Chestertown.

Fragrances can be subtle or strong, sweet, spicy, musky (eucalyptus, for example) or herbal, depending on what's used. Which means you can customize the scent to suit your own or your family's sense of smell.

"The sense of smell is genetic," says Cordelia Head, owner of J&L Orchids in Easton, Conn. "I can't even smell some orchids that other people love, and vice versa."

Other possibilities are herbal topiaries -- rosemary and lavender are favorites -- and windowsill herb gardens. Herbs, which aren't in bloom this time of year, enhance a room with a subtle springlike freshness.

"If you run your hand over herbs or brush past them, they release their scents more strongly," says Carrie Engel, horticulturist at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.

For sweeter, and in some cases stronger fragrances, stick a pot or two of winter-blooming plants in the window. Garden centers, catalogs and grocery stores offer gardenia, freesia, winter jasmine and cyclamen. (The pink and purple miniature cyclamen are the most fragrant.) A new addition to this pantheon is the miniature Calamondin orange tree (about 18 inches tall).

"The oranges they produce are real sour, but the blooms are very sweet-smelling," says Engel.

Orchids, many of which are easy to grow, can add delicate beauty as well as fragrance -- from subtle to strong --- to the windowsill. Oncidium 'Twinkle,'' which comes in white or red, can perfume a whole room.

"Oncidium 'Sharry Baby,' which smells like chocolate, is very fragrant too," says Head.

The fragrant miniature orchids make good candidates for the windowsills due in part to their compactness. Good choices are Laelia pumila, Dendrochilum filiforme, Dendrobium kingianum and Masdevallia 'Confetti,' a creamy, mauve-speckled blossom with yellow streamers off each petal.

Of course, there is the tried and true -- fragrant bulbs. Some -- hyacinth and dwarf miniature iris, for example -- can be forced, or made to bloom, out of season. Others -- fragrant trumpet amaryllis -- bloom naturally in winter. The ubiquitous paperwhites (Narcissus ziva) are very strongly scented. The later-blooming yellow varieties (N. 'Soleil d'or') are much less pungent.

Care for this range of materials varies. Forcing bulbs is simple -- instructions for forcing are usually included at the store. Paperwhites, found in bins everywhere, have already been prepared for forcing by being chilled in a dark place for several weeks and need only to be plunked into a container of stones with water up to their bottoms. But be sure to ask whether or not other spring-blooming bulbs, like hyacinth and iris, need preparation.

For bulbs and plants, check on light requirements. Most want as much light as you can give them, so a south window is perfect -- except for orchids.

"Early morning and later afternoon sun is good for orchids," says Head, "a hot, sunny south window is not."

One cultural hurdle for some of the tropical plants, like orchids, which are accustomed to afternoon rains, is the dry air in heated homes. Put a pebble tray with water beneath or mist periodically. Most plants and flowers, including the forced bulbs, grow shorter and stronger with longer-lasting flowers if they are in a slightly cooler room -- temperatures in the 60s rather than 70s.


Kingstown Farm, Home and Garden

7121 Church Hill Road

Chestertown, MD 21620


Valley View Farms

11035 York Road

Cockeysville, MD 21030


J&L Orchids

20 Sherwood Road

Easton, CT 06612


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