A garden without fragrance is really no garden at all. After all, how can you create something made for the senses but leave out interest dedicated to the sense of smell? There is literally an endless supply of fragrant plants to choose from, so adding aroma to any garden should be easy. But believe it or not, I have visited gardens where fragrant plants did not exist.
With still a long way to go, I have what I consider to be a good start of fragrant plants in my garden, the most impressive being my Michellia champaca (Joy Perfume Tree). At night it can almost be over-powering at times. Another plant that I really enjoy for its fragrance is my Stemmadenia littoralis (Milky Way Tree).
Native to Central America, Stemmadenia littoralis is an open-branching tree that creates a multi-layered canopy. In the tropics these trees have a maximum height of around 25 feet. My plant is now 6 years old from a 15-gallon sized pot and is only about 12 feet tall right now. You can see from the photo below that the twisting branches and layered growth might make for some good epiphytes attachments. Maybe a few orchids down the road?
The tubular white flowers of Stemmadenia littoralis can be found on the tree from spring through fall. Only when the cool winter nights set in does the tree stop flowering. While in flower, it is a remarkably floriferous tree.
Also called “Lechozo,” Stemmadenia littoralis is one of the most fragrant flowering trees in the tropics. I can attest to this from smelling them in a few botanical gardens in Hawaii. Unfortunately here in Southern California, with its drier air, the fragrance doesn’t waft like it does in more humid climates. So the fragrance is not as strong and must be enjoyed a little closer to the tree. I have my Stemmadenia littoralis planned along the walkway to my front door. It makes for a great conversation piece, as I am often asked by guest what the aroma was they smelled walking in. While I am not very good at describing fragrance, a friend’s wife gave the best description to date. She said it smells “pleasantly musky.” Huh? Well, that works for me.
Here are four flowers in a before and after photo. The Gray Hairstreak Butterfly was kind enough to provide some colorful scale.
Honey bees enjoy the flowers as well. This early-morning worker pictured below was actually in the process of backing out. It is a lot of work for honey bees to get to the nectar, as it is a long, tight tunnel for a bee to squeeze into.
The leaves of Stemmadenia littoralis add to the overall attractiveness of the tree. The oval leaves are a dark, shiny green and glimmer in the sun.
Even the seed pods are pretty on Stemmadenia littoralis. They are double-horned orange pods that hang from the tree.
Here is one of last year’s that has opened up recently with ripe seed.
The Milky Way Tree is in the Apocynaceae family of flowering plants. However, unlike its relatives Plumeria and Adenium, it is an evergreen tree here in Southern California. Books will tell you it is strictly a Zone 10-11 plant, but I have heard of Stemmadenia littoralis doing fine in 9B here in some SoCal gardens. It might lose all its leaves and have some major die-back from frost, but once spring hits, it will grow back quickly. Here in my garden, Stemmadenia littoralis is grown in a partial shade setting but I have witnessed it easily handling full sun 15 miles inland. In fact, mine most likely would have preferred more summer sun. However, I wanted mine under the canopy of a large Canary Island Date Palm to provide some frost protection during those occasional chilly winters.
If you have a fast-draining spot in your garden that needs a smallish, fragrant flowering tree, then I highly recommend Stemmadenia littoralis. It is not an easy tree to find for sale in Southern Californian nurseries, but worth the hunt.