Not Every Flower Is Heaven Scent


A rose by any other name might smell sweet, but what about those ornamentals or flowers with odors that can knock a buzzard off road kill?

“There really aren’t that many bad-smelling flowers used in gardens,” said Robert Berghage, associate professor of horticulture who oversees Penn State’s trial gardens. “Most flowers have little or no scent, and those that do, usually smell sweet. But there are a few that can offend some people’s sense of smell.”

Among those with overwhelming aromas: marigolds, geraniums, lilies, alyssum, petunias and daisies.


* Marigolds: These brightly colored annuals are extremely popular bedding plants--at least from a distance, according to Berghage; Robert Nuss, Penn State professor of ornamental horticulture; and Jay Holcomb, professor of floriculture.

“They have an overpowering musky smell like wet hay or straw,” Berghage said. “It’s particularly strong when marigolds are cut and brought indoors.”

* Geraniums: Nuss said many gardeners find its earthy smell offensive. “If you’re in a dark room, you can definitely find the geranium,” he said.

* Lily: “The lily has an overpowering perfume smell, although some types smell stronger than others,” Berghage said. “The smell of a lily in a small room often is enough to bring tears to my eyes.”

* Alyssum: “This flower has a very sweet smell that is overpowering when planted in large groupings,” Berghage said.

* Petunia: These plants have an earthy smell.

* Daisy (chrysanthemum): “Most daisies have a mildly earthy smell, but some have a scent mildly reminiscent of cow manure,” Berghage said.


* Wayfaring tree (Viburnam lantana): “The flowers on this shrub are small and white, but born in clusters that are very attractive,” Holcomb said. “I once made a table arrangement using these flowers and regretted using it as a cut flower. The smell is hard to describe, but it was offensive.”

* Tree of Heaven: Imported from an island off China, this tree is an invasive species that drives out native trees.

“The odor released by the tree when it is disturbed smells like a skunk to me,” Nuss said.

* Ginkgo tree: The fruit of the female ginkgo tree exudes odors after it has fallen. The smell is similar to sewage or related material.

“You don’t want to be anywhere around this tree when that fruit hits the ground,” Nuss said.

* Carrion plants: This is a term for several varieties of flowers--mostly tropical species that don’t grow well in outdoor gardens--that release odors similar to rotting flesh.

“The flower attracts flies, which help the plant pollinate,” Nuss said. “One plant in this group is called the ‘corpse flower.’ ”


Nuss said gardeners can seek out ornamentals with pleasing smells, such as sassafras, spicebush, bayberry, some viburnams, witch hazel and magnolia.