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Green Acre #201: Her Garden Makes Scents

God bless jasmine! There’s no missing its dirty-sweet scent, and there are enough varieties to take you through a whole year. (Don’t ask LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” which variety is pictured. She lost the ID tags long ago.) / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE NEW GARDENIA is about to bloom; one of the fat buds is ripening on the little bush. At least I assume it will bloom, though I do get into trouble assuming things. I buy a gardenia every year, it seems, and every year it up and dies, having done nothing. 

Here follows a rather lengthy aside. TMI? You decide:

Had I remained married to the pre-prince, we would be hitting our 49th anniversary this week. I wanted gardenias in my bouquet, which horrified my ex-mother-in-law-to-be. “Oh no!” she said. “Don’t you know gardenias at a wedding are unlucky?”

Why would I know that? I carried roses instead, though it didn’t matter, since the marriage was doomed before it began. 

My ex, a nice Jewish lawyer, should have been right up there, just behind brain surgeon. But my father called it “a good first marriage.”  

Now, if that isn’t dooming something—and from the very lips of the man whose fault it was that I was wed at 21. 

We wanted to rent a summer house. There was this ad in the New York Times for a rental, $2,000 for six months. It was a farmhouse, set on a hundred acres, with a swimming pool and tennis courts in Cobleskill, New York, a three-hour drive from the city.

Driving up one Saturday, just to see, we went nuts over the rambling white house with the wide front porch and seven bedrooms. Unlike Fire Island, where everyone else summered, sleeping on living room floors when it wasn’t their weekend to have a door, there was plenty of privacy.

Back in the city, I announced to my parents, with whom I still lived, that the pre-prince and I were going to rent the place, which did not go over well. In 1971, shacking up was not yet the norm. Two weeks later, we were hitched, just in time for the lease to begin. 

Seven years later we parted, sort of. There was enough of something left that I went with him to buy a mattress for his new place, bouncing around to make sure we both liked it—in case, you know.

We were living in DC by then, dating each other—and others. I was, in fact, at a party with him when I met My Prince, who asked me to dance. Then he suggested a ride in his Porsche,* the most obnoxious pickup line I’d ever heard, and I ditched him.

Several days later he groveled about and took me to a show—I don’t remember what, though it involved roller skates. There was dinner after, at his place: stuffed rock Cornish hens, skinny green beans with almonds, plenty of wine, and I thought, My God, what a find, though I later found out that he didn’t know how to cook anything else. 

There were no gardenias in my bouquet at our wedding, which was 37 years ago and change. 

Returning to the subject at hand, beyond gardenias I love most flowers that bludgeon with fragrance—subtle is so boring. 

Our back porch is lined with pots of jasmine, most of unknown variety, since I lost the tags. One of them has been flowering for over a month, wiry limbs scampering along the railing. It’s fading now, but another is preparing to explode. Later this summer the stephanotis will flower. The South African jasmine, which busily blossoms throughout the year, fills in any gaps. 

For me, the dirty sweetness of jasmine is the essence of Key West, slow, sexy, steamy nights, drinking mojitos under twinkling palms . . .

Speaking of which, a potted Key lime is perched on the steps into the garden, where the Meyer lemon has set fruit from its winter flowering, with new buds just emerging. Citrus is just so damned delicious. 

For perhaps the ninth time, I’m attempting to grow a plumeria, a shockingly fragrant flowering plant with gorgeous colors that Hawaiians use for leis. I have hope, since the bare stick (which is how they’re started) that I ordered from a Florida grower is leafing out. Unfortunately, something bad always happens, usually when we go on vacation, which may or may not happen this year.   

These are all tropicals, which are nursed in my little solarium through the winter. Many varieties can be hard to find north of the South until absolutely all danger of frost is over—around here that means now. I lust after a bitter orange, a bush with nasty-tasting fruit but delectable scent.       

There are other powerfully fragrant vines and plants in the garden that are less tricky than these, like the honeysuckle climbing the garden wall, and drifting over the fence in May. This grows well with no prompting (too well for some people, who find it wildly invasive), reaching up to grab the sun, of which we have just a dappling, precluding most roses and peonies.

It took a few stabs to find the right mock orange, but the one by the pond is so headily perfumed you can catch a trace of it from 20 paces (the others flower prettily but you really have to get in there to smell them). Damned if I remember the variety, but it has acid-green leaves. My best advice? Buy one that’s already in bloom so you can assess the scent. 

Should you choose to plant a wisteria, that pestilent but heavenly vine, do your research. Mine is a total waste of time, though it does a good job covering the junk My Prince stores on the garage roof. In over three dacades it has done nothing but throw off masses of leaves and insanely invasive stems that need constant thwacking back. Thankfully, our neighbor, Pat, has a beauty that gifts us with billows of divine fragrance. 

I‘m hoping that the new gardenia isn’t toying with me. Surely this time those great fat buds will ripen and burst, not dry up and drop. With this week’s rain, then the hot summer sun . . . maybe I’ll get lucky. If not, there’s always next year.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” has a nose for gardening.

*The offer of a ride in his Porsche continues to be a prickle. He claims he said his “convertible,” which I reject. In any case, offering a ride in a convertible is only marginally less obnoxious. 


One thought on “Green Acre #201: Her Garden Makes Scents

  1. Maggie Hall says:

    No, no, not too much TMI by any means! The other stuff good too….

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