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Gardening in Hong Kong: Scented Plants


Bauhinea trees are beautiful but they need a great deal of space
Bauhinea trees are beautiful but they need a great deal of space


Occasionally I find myself day-dreaming about the ideal garden. I enjoy colours, but I also try to have something fragrant at every season. If you want colour and scent combined, the choice is rather limited: most colourful flowers are unscented and most scented flowers are white so that they show up in the dark to attract the moths and other nocturnal creatures which are essential for pollination.

Exceptions include some roses, although many of the most beautiful hybrids have no scent at all. Hong Kong conditions are best suited to miniatures (some of which are scented) and to the scented local climbing varieties, the pink Seven Sisters and white Cherokee roses.

Petunias have been hybridised over decades to produce ever more spectacular colours, although scent is not a priority. For some reason, many of the purple cultivars are highly scented, especially in humid conditions, which makes them ideal for Hong Kong’s winter.

Hybrid roses come in gorgeous colours, but not all are scented
Hybrid roses come in gorgeous colours, but not all are scented


Like hybrid roses, florists’ Freesias are bred for looks only. But if you can find a packet of mixed freesia corms, they thrive in containers in Hong Kong and most colours are wonderfully fragrant. It’s not too late to plant them now, pointed end uppermost, about 4cm deep in rich, well-draining potting mix, approximately six to a 12cm pot. You can more or less forget about them until the leaves start to sprout (this can take about 3 months) but don’t overwater in the meantime. Once leaves appear, put them in full sun, don’t let the pots dry out and by April-May you should have a pot full of long-lasting flowers. They won’t have the long stems of cut freesias, but they will give you pleasure for a month or more in their growing pots. Feed them with slow release fertilizer after the flowers finish to produce good corms that should last from one year to the next; you can lift them once the leaves dry off or just leave them in the pot where they seem to survive quite well until the next planting season.

The thousands of different orchids in this world include some that are intensely fragrant. A few combine beauty and scent while some favourite Chinese orchids are so inconspicuous that only their scent tells you that they are blooming at all.

You can have colour and scent if you have space for a Bauhinia blakeana, the intensely perfumed “Hong Kong Orchid” tree. Other members of the same family are also scented. If you have a wall or fence that you would like to cover, try the Bauhinia glauca, which has dainty leaves and pretty white flowers that look pink on account of their red stripe. All this family grows fast, so don’t even think about it unless you can cope with a tree that can reach 15 metres within a few years.

Hoya blooms: scented and colourful
Hoya blooms: scented and colourful


My garden is small so I try to select plants that earn their space for at least six weeks in a year. This is why I long since gave up on Honeysuckle: I love the smell and the flowers are pretty, but its flowering span is too short to justify the space that it requires to grow well. But I do have other creepers including a Stephanotis that sulks for much of the time, but is so gorgeous when it blooms that I cannot bring myself to discard it.

Members of the Hoya family come in many sizes and colours. The balls of waxy flowers are often strongly scented. They like to cling to a wall that receives no direct sun but seems to give them sufficient warmth to flourish for much of the year.

The great Hong Kong standby is Osmanthus fragrans. This slow-growing shrub seems equally happy in the ground or in a pot. It grows slowly and tends to straggle unless it is trimmed occasionally. If it has plenty of sun, it produces sweet-smelling tiny white or cream flowers almost throughout the year. A less common version of the same shrub has golden-orange flowers, used in making scented tea and traditional desserts. Until I visited Guilin in the winter, I never understood why Osmanthus is sometimes called Sweet Olive. At this season the many osmanthus trees that line the streets were laden with fruits that do indeed resemble green olives, or, more accurately, green capers.

Most members of the Brunfelsia family have fragrant flowers that start purple and change through mauve to white over several days, so the effect is of three different colours on the same shrub. This accounts for their common name, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. The fragrant flowers of the rampant vine Quisqualis indica (Rangoon creeper) start white, change to pink and end up red, giving rise to the common name Drunken Sailor.

Plumeria (Frangipani) trees have flowers of many beautiful colours, but in Hong Kong’s sub-tropical conditions, their fragrance seems less intense than in places like Sri Lanka and Singapore.

One of the most familiar Hong Kong scents is generated by the Baklan (Michelia alba). The tightly rolled ivory-white flower buds are still commonly sold on street corners for women to put in their hair or to refresh pockets and bags or even cars. Left to its own devices this becomes a huge tree, soaring to a height of 25 metres or more. One of Hong Kong’s largest specimens stands outside the Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong Park. The closely related Wanglan (Michelia champaca) has rich golden flowers. This is less common and a less aggressive grower. It is more fragrant than the white variety and double flowered varieties are sometimes available. It can stay happily in a pot.

Both types have recently been reclassified as belonging to the Magnolia family, which has some 13 members, including the shrubby Michelia fugo. The latter will grow in a pot for years. It tolerates almost any conditions except full shade and it flowers intermittently through the year. Opinions vary as to whether its flowers smell of port wine or ripe banana. Either way, the scent is quite distinct from that of its close relatives, but like them, it adds an unmistakable note to the blend of scents that contribute so much to Hong Kong’s powerful appeal.

Jane Ram is a long-time Hong Kong resident, the immediate past chair and long-time committee member of the Hong Kong Gardening Society and a well-known broadcaster and writer on garden-oriented topics.