Monday, March 19, 2012

The sweet smell of spring...

An alluring fragrance together with a succession of purple, lavender and white blooms make yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plant a stunning addition to the garden

Simply Living
March 19, 2012

Where's that sweet smell coming from?"

My daughter, visiting from Massachusetts with her husband and two young babies, had just come in from taking an outdoor shower where the natural aroma of blooming flowers overpowered the floral scent of soap and shampoo.

"Is it from the bottlebrush tree?" Jenny asked referring to the 15-foot tall Callistemon tree near the shower. "It's so full of blossoms."

"No, not the bottlebrush," I told her. "It's the brunfelsia — the yesterday-today-and-tomorrow bush — growing around the corner. Walk over there and you'll see. It smells amazing."

A few minutes later, Jenny returned.

"You're right," she said. "It was the brunfelsia. I had no idea its aroma could travel so far."

Brunfelsia does have a powerful fragrance. Not only does this early bloomer produce an abundance of small, pansy-like blooms, the multicolored flowers emit a far-reaching sweetness that always reminds me of springtime on Cape Cod.

One whiff is all it takes to reclaim old memories. As I inhale the aroma of the brunfelsia's white-lavender-and-purple blooms, I recall the scent of daffodils, grape hyacinths and those tiny white snowbells that used to pop up in our lawn after a muddy March thaw.

Florida's mild climate doesn't support those mainstays of a Northern bulb garden but other plants — including brunfelsia — are here to usher in the spring season with heady aromas.

Native to the woodlands of Brazil, brunfelsia is a small shrub (7 to 10 feet tall by 5 to 8 feet wide) with aromatic flowers that blooms profusely throughout the warm months. While there are about 30 varieties, brunfelsia grandiflora, brunfelsia australis and brunfelsia pauciflora are three of the most commonly grown species.

Brunfelsia likes a slightly acidic soil, grows best in somewhat filtered sunlight and has minimal pest problems. Although sensitive to cold, the plant recovers quickly. I've been growing brunfelsia for about 10 years and while it has frequently received cold damage, its blooms have never failed to scent the spring air.

My first plant came from Smith's Nursery in Mascotte. The entryway at this small, family-run nursery is flanked by a mature and incredibly beautiful row of yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plants. I can't imagine how any prospective plant purchaser who catches a glimpse of those amazing plants can leave the nursery without buying one. I certainly couldn't.

I planted my original 3-gal plant next to the west side of our house, around the corner from our outdoor shower. Since then, it has produced several "babies" nearby. Every now and then, I give the area a good weeding and occasionally — once every few years — add a top dressing of enriched soil.

Like most of my favorite flowering plants, brunfelsia can handle a large measure of neglect. The original plant is now about 6 feet tall and the babies are about half that size. I'm sure if they were pampered a bit — irrigated, fertilized and weeded regularly, etc. — they would look more like the stunning examples at Smith's Nursery, but even left alone the plants are impressive.

Brunfelsia's special quality — in addition to its ability to trigger memories of Northern spring gardens — is its unusual tri-colored floral display. Many plants have pretty, sweet-smelling blooms, but only brunfelsia supports three different colored blossoms simultaneously. Blooms begin as a dark purple flowers with a white center but because new ones are constantly opening, the bush is never covered without multiple colors. As the days go by (think: yesterday-today-tomorrow), flowers fade from dark purple to pale lavender to soft white. All the while, their scented message travels the airwaves to bees, butterflies, moths and people.

"Come hither!" they seem to call. "Come visit! Sweeten the moment!"

I'm glad my daughter was here to experience this special harbinger of a Southern spring. Florida may lack the lilac bushes, pussy willows, crocuses, daffodils and forsythias that Jenny enjoys up North but here in the Sunshine State we have our own floral indications of spring and sweet brunfelsia is on that list.

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