09 November 2009

Book Review: The Fragrant Path by Louise Beebe Wilder

I'm a huge Louise Beebe Wilder fan, so when I saw her The Fragrant Path in a used book store recently, I eagerly snatched it up.
If you've never read Louise Beebe Wilder, you should. She wrote back in the 20s and 30s, and though that makes her work nearly a hundred years old, her writing remains utterly fresh and relevant. She is, I think, my favorite gardener writer of all time.

The Fragrant Path is (duh) about fragrance in the garden. Like most gardeners, I've not given scent in the garden much thought. I like fragrant plants, but I've never designed with fragrance in mind like I do with color. As Wilder puts it: "We plan meticulously for color harmony and sequence of bloom, but who goes deliberately about planning for a succession of sweet scents during every week of the growing year?" ("...succession of sweet scents..." Love it!)

The answer to that rhetorical question soon becomes clear. Who plans the details of fragrance in the garden? Louise Beebe Wilder does. Throughout the book she describes groupings of fragrant plants she enjoys: "Honeysuckle and loose white rugosa rose make a delicious combination and possess a delicate poetic beauty." And those she feels clash: "I made the mistake once of putting a lily-of-the-valley bed beneath some lilac bushes. The season of the two strong scented flowers over-lapped and the result was unfortunate for they did not blend happily."

Describing scent in words is always difficult, but some of her passages recreate sensations of fragrance so vividly you almost can smell it as you read: "To sleep in a room beyond whose casement honeysuckle scrambles and to awake in the night to the exquisite fragrance that inspires the darkness is an experience of rare quality. Such things invade life's commonplace routine with an ecstatic pleasure."

But don't think this book is all purple prose and poetry -- she backs up that passage on honeysuckle with detailed descriptions of no less than 24 different species of honeysuckles. Inspiration for the garden, and the information you need to actually execute the ideas she gives you all in one book. 

I'm excited now to start exploring fragrance in a new way. I'm not sure I'm ready to start designing fragrance combinations, but I'm going to track down some of the plants she mentions, and spend next summer sniffing and thinking. I'm used to thinking about combining color and texture in my garden. From now on, I want my designs are going to be about color, texture, and aroma.

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