Fragrant Natives for the Garden

By Arvind Kumar

One of the nicest comments my garden has received in the eight years of being shown on the Going Native Garden Tour came this year in the form of a question. I was giving a guided tour of the garden to a group of visitors. We were standing on the flagstone path in the sunny front yard when a visitor asked, “Does your garden always smell this good?”

The quality of fragrance depends on the season, and sometimes on the time of day.

It was a question and a statement. The answer to the question is: yes, many native plants are fragrant year-round, but the quality of fragrance depends on the season, and sometimes on the time of day. Some summer nights when I come home late from work, the garden greets me with an enchanting aroma that says, “Stay. Linger. Inhale.”

As an owner, one tends to take things for granted, but that spring morning, the first-time visitor’s remark made me aware of it once again. What she was experiencing was not a particular flower or plant, but a heady brew of fragrances from several different plants. Here is a short list of native plants to stimulate your olfactory senses and soothe your mind.

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) Photo: Arvind Kumar

The large leaves of hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)  have a pleasing minty fragrance that is accentuated when the plant is massed in a bed. The plant appreciates some shade and water to keep looking its best through summer. If happy, it slowly expands via rhizomes and colonizes a bed. Flower spikes attract hummingbirds. Blooms in spring.

California’s many native sages are all fragrant, but Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) is in a class by itself. Its gray foliage is aromatic, and its lavender flower spikes are perfumed. Found in southern California chaparral and scrub communities, it does well in dry, sunny gardens. Other forms include Sonoma sage (Salvia sonomensis), a groundcover with bright green leaves and lavender flowers, or black sage (Salvia mellifera), a small shrub with white flowers and intensely aromatic foliage. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees are drawn to native sages, as are a variety of songbirds. Flowers in spring.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) Photo: Arvind Kumar

California lilac (Ceanothus sp) comes in a variety of forms, from groundcovers to shrubs to small trees, with flowers in the blue-violet spectrum. Flowers are mildly fragrant and a magnet for butterflies and bees. Flowers in early spring.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a sun-loving perennial with aromatic, fern-like leaves. Flat-topped flower heads make excellent landing pads for butterflies and other pollinators. Blooms in spring.

The currants of California are prized for their lovely floral displays in winter and spring, but some are also known for their fragrant foliage. The leaves of chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum) and pink-flowering currant(Ribes sanguineum glutinosum) release their aroma when brushed against. Place them near garden paths.

Mugwort (Artemisia douglasii) is a perennial which prefers the partial shade and moisture near creek beds. The foliage has a sage-like fragrance. Poison oak encounters can be treated quickly and simply by rubbing crushed mugwort leaves on the affected skin.

Gray-leaved California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is remarkable for its ability to thrive on arid, sunny slopes. Its fragrant foliage has earned it the moniker cowboy cologne. Those who know the California landscape think of it as the quintessential smell of California.

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) is technically a shrub (has woody stems), but is often lumped with perennials due to its small size (to 18”). Its leaves have a mint-like fragrance that intensifies as the days get warmer. Great for butterflies. Blooms in late spring.

The flowering spikes of the California buckeye (Aesculus californica) are beautiful and fragrant, and a magnet for butterflies and native bees. Found on north-facing slopes and near streams, this small tree is summer deciduous. The fruit mature by late fall, and have ornamental value.

At up to 8” wide, the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) is the largest poppy in the world and the largest California native flower. Many people don’t know that it is also deliciously fragrant, and excellent as a cut flower. Gray canes rise up to 8’ and are topped by giant flowers in mid-spring. Cut to the ground each winter to renew.

The white, trumpet-like flowers of sacred datura (Datura wrightii) open in the evening. At the height of its glory in mid-summer each plant sports 10-20 upright flowers with a subtly sweet fragrance. This perennial requires no summer water. Caution: all plant parts are toxic and should not be ingested.

I hope this short list of fragrant natives piques your interest and encourages you to try some. There are many, many more where these come from. California’s plant diversity is mind-boggling, and deserves to be explored, treasured, and celebrated.

Arvind Kumar is a long-time member of the CNPS Santa Clara Valley Chapter who has been growing and enjoying native plant in his San Jose garden since 2001.


  1. Hi Arvind, what sage do you recommend for San Jose? I’m worried that Cleveland Sage may be too big for our yard. Would like something with purple flowers. Thanks, Linden

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