Five plants to rub and sniff

Reaching out and rubbing the foliage of an aromatic plant and then bringing your fingers to your nose to enjoy the scent is something that surprises and entertains toddlers and grown-ups alike. The smells are often the scents of Mediterranean holidays and many of the flavours come from herbs that can be used in the kitchen and on the barbecue as well.

The trick is to choose plants that not only have aromatic leaves but have some other appealing features, so that even if you don’t scratch and sniff, they’re still well worth growing.

Bergamot (Monarda)

Bergamot (Monarda)
Bergamot (Monarda).

This is the best case of fragrance-plus I can think of. The leaves have a citrus minty flavour, similar to that of the oil used to the flavour Earl Grey tea. In fact, pick a few leaves straight off the plant and you can take them to the kitchen and makes a refreshing herb cuppa straight away. Rub the leaves for a burst of scent or you’ll certainly notice it if you’re handling the plant or weeding around it.

And it’s not just about the scent. In summer, the fat clusters of flowers of bergamots open in a wonderful range of colours at the tops of upright stems. Scarlet is the most common but they also come in purples and lavenders and pinks and white, dwarf types as well as tall. Plants grow between about 50cm -1.2m.

Fennel (Foeniculum)


Fennel would be worth growing just for the look of the leaves, never mind the smell. Early in the season it makes a big mound of the finest feathery foliage – the leaves are split even finer than carrot leaves and it makes a very attractive feature. Then, a mass of stout vertical stems surges through and they’re topped by flat heads of greeny yellow flowers that attract plenty of different pollinating insects.

The scent? Anise, aniseed – like strong version of dill. Use it on the barbecue with fish. Some people even put pieces of stem inside the fish when they grill them. This is the plant that the vegetable root fennel is developed from. Plants grow up to about 1.2-1.8m.

Lavender (Lavandula)

Lavender in a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show. Image: Martin Mulchinock.

This is one that you often don’t even need to rub. The vapour evaporates into the air from the slim, grey evergreen leaves in hot dry weather – just the same in your garden as it does in Italy or Greece. You’ll smell lavender as you go by, especially if your trousers brush the leaves as you pass. You can also pick the flowers in summer and tie them in bunches to hang upside down to dry for scent indoors in winter and for homemade gifts.

The bushes are neat and an ideal edging for a sunny front path – just remember they hate shade and soggy soil. You can grow them in pots, too. Plants grow to around 40-60cm.

Golden lemon balm (Melissa)

lemon balm
Lemon balm

This is the easiest of my selections to grow and probably the one which combines the strongest scent with the most adaptable good looks. Have to say, though: the flowers are pathetic – spikes of little white things you can hardly see and will soon forget if you do.

The leaves look a little like mint leaves, broader and glossier, but the plants don’t run at the root, take over your garden and smother everything else in sight (like mint can). And the leaves of the golden form – which is the one to look out for – are bright yellow.

The scent? Lemon – a strong lemon flavour.  And it makes lovely lemon tea. Plants grow to around 30-90cm.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus)


This is the scratch-‘n’-sniff for meat eaters – not that it smells like meat, not at all. But it’s a valuable herb to cook with lamb, either a joint roasted in the oven or chops grilled on the barbecue.

But those dark, dark evergreen leaves pack a powerful perfume when you rub against the plants or rub the shoots through your fingers. And like all these choices, rubbing the dark, slender evergreen leaves never seems to do the plants any harm – the leaves are pretty tough.

Rosemary plants are bushy sun lovers with blue flowers lining the branches in spring so they look good all the year round. Plants grow to around 60cm-1.5m.

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