Fragrance in the landscape is often a wonderfully fleeting pleasure. A delightful scent may last only as long as the breeze that carries it, or may never hover far from its delicate bloom of origin. There are a number of woody plants, however, that deliver a notably heady punch of fragrance far more substantial than many of the more ephemeral aromas of flowering trees, shrubs and perennials. While many of these assertive woodies bloom in late spring or summer, an iconoclastic few waft intoxicating perfumes through the already amazing autumn landscape. One of the most well-known of these is Osmanthus fragrans, the Fragrant Tea Olive, but there is another worthy plant whose dramatic fragrance also perfumes the autumn air, Elaeagnus pungens, Thorny Eleagnus.
There are a number of Elaeagnus species commonly found in the landscape and all have fragrant flowers, but none that flower in the fall can compete with Thorny Elaeagnus for the sheer intensity of its wonderful, spicy scent. Thorny Elaeagnus is a large and gangly evergreen shrub with shiny, silvery green leaves on loose, thorny stems. The foliage has a light, warm brown tint on the undersides.
If left to itself, this plant will rapidly reach incredible proportions in a short period of time - on the order of 15 feet by 15 feet in a few seasons - with long streamers of new growth shooting out from it as if an alien had descended into the landscape. However, judicious, regular pruning can tame this potential monster into a wonderfully tough and durable plant with uniquely charming horticultural character. The foliage is quite handsome, especially on some of the more interesting cultivars, and the long stems of these leaves make wonderful cut material for arrangements. In the fall, the axils of the leaves bear tiny, silver-white flowers which are shaped like a cross between tubular trumpets and diminutive, elongated bells. The flowers may develop into rarely seen red fruits, but the primary attraction of these tiny blooms is their fragrance. The scent is deliciously pungent with lasting overtones of lemon and ginger that hang languidly in the air. The aroma from one plant can easily perfume an entire small garden.
Elaeagnus pungens is a marvelously tough plant that is considered a weed by some. This native of Japan will grow in almost any site from sun to shade or droughty to wet, and is very salt tolerant. This Elaeagnus is not subject to any serious pests and is completely hardy from the coast to the mountains. It has been used extensively in the southeast for highway and municipal plantings in tough areas where it happily grows into huge, unkempt mounds that actually leave the viewer with an unfair image of what the shrub can be if maintained. While it is true that Elaeagnus pungens is not a good choice for small, restrictive sites, it is a wonderful plant for larger, urban settings where few other plants will thrive, as it provide
attractive quick screening or wind protection. Thorny Elaeagnus is not a good plant for formal, manicured gardens because of its propensity to get wild-eyed, but it is an excellent choice for larger properties requiring hedging or with difficult banks. A hedge of Thorny Eleagnus is an perfect refuge for small wildlife and its evergreen foliage is handsome in the winter, particularly if some of the variegated forms are used.
Named cultivars of Thorny Elaeagnus include a number of forms with some type of yellow-gold variegation. The effect in the landscape of these various cultivars, 'Aurea', 'Dicksonii', 'Golden Rim', 'Maculata' (or 'Aureo-variegata') is much the same - bright splashes of gold in the form of a rough shrub. They are certainly not refined, but are an excellent way to bring bright winter color to a drab, difficult site. Other cultivars include 'Marginata' with silver-white variegation, 'Variegata' with white-yellow, irregular variegation, 'Fruitlandii' with larger, more rounded leaves, and 'Simonii' with reduced thorny character and large leaves that are densely silver on the undersides. Surprisingly, Thorny Eleagnus can be difficult to propagate from rooted cuttings. Hardwood cuttings should be taken in early to late winter after some cold weather.
At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), a number of variegated Thorny Elaeagnus have zestfully created a large, bright hedge in the east Arboretum, in spite of poor, heavy clay soil. Each fall, their enticing fragrance mingles with the scents of flowery Fragrant Tea Olive, fallen leaves and nippy autumn air. Come stroll the paths and gardens of the Arboretum to savor the wonderful fragrance of this bold shrub in the atmosphere of autumn.