Fragrant Plants for Your Desert Garden

Scent is one of our most basic senses, yet fragrant plants are often neglected when planning a landscape.

The Nose Knows!

I cherish my desert garden for all the wonderfully scented plants in it. Often I run my fingers along branches or leaves to release heady fragrance. Also, I grew up here and love the smell of the desert after the rain.

Rosemary fragrance is “woodsy, fresh, camphoraceous.”

Most scents defy words. I certainly do try when I write these articles. At best I can use perfumers terms such as; sweet, tangy, sharp, fruity, clear, warm, spicy, earthy, fresh, or musky.  Perfumers also refer to other scents. For example, rosemary is described as a aroma.

Fragrant Low Water Plants

There are a wide range of arid-adapted plants that do well here and are highly fragrant. The list includes trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers, and even accent plants. I have my favorite plant palate, just as other landscapers have theirs. It is important for you to consider what you like and want in your space. Note that one added benefit of strongly scented plants is that they are usually unpalatable to rabbits, ground squirrels, javelina and deer.

soule-gardening-javelina-eat plants
Fragrant plants are often avoided by javelina and rabbits.

Fragrant Native Herbs

One of my personal favorites is the Mount Lemmon marigold (Tagetes lemmonii). This medium size shrub is ideal on the east or north side of a building where it gets no more than a half day of full sun. Leaves emit a sweet musky scent, especially notable in the bloom season, November to February. For a sunnier location, select it’s Chihuahuan Desert cousin the Copper Canyon marigold, Tagetes palmeri. Both of these make a refreshing tea.

Sweet marigold, also sold as Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) is strongly anise scented, and anise tasting too, as it makes a delightful tea. Also called Mexican mint marigold, this plant looks somewhat like a mint, and prefers moisture as mint does. Mine thrives in my water feature, with one inch of the pot in the water. Golden flowers in fall.

Use this fragrant plant anywhere you would use tarragon.

Desert lavender (Condea emoryi, formerly Hyptis emoryi) is ideal for my readers with sandy soils. You can find this medium sized shrub growing in washes such as Pima Canyon near Tucson. It is the sort of plant most folks hike right past without stopping, unless you happen to rub against the soft, fuzzy gray leaves. Suddenly the air is filled with the clear, pungent scent of lavender! Small lavender purple flowers in spikes adorn the plant in spring and are great for potpourri.

Bee bush (Aloysia wrighti) is pollinated by butterflies. Closely related to the herb lemon verbena, the foliage has a strong oregano fragrance. Called “oreganillo” in Mexico, it is used in cooking. The spikes of pale purple flowers are a bonus. It grows as a shrub to around six feet tall and can be trained into a small tree.

Beebush – pollinated by butterflies. Photo courtesy T. Lebague.

Tuck This One In Anywhere

Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) is a low shrub best planted in masses as a mounding groundcover. Foliage has an earthy, mildly pungent scent. Clusters of golden yellow daisy-like flowers make a great show in spring and fall.

Fragrant Shrubs

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), has a strong earthy, musky fragrance. Spikes of purplish blue flowers appear in spring and dry well for arrangements. Reaching six feet high and as wide, the plant does best in well drained soils. Comes to us from coastal California, and does best with afternoon shade in summer.

Creosote bush in bloom. Photo courtesy S. Shebs.

Let’s not forget the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata)! The leaves have a mildly sweet, spicy, pungent fragrance that fills the desert air after the rain. For many Southwest desert dwellers, the fragrance of creosote bush is associated with monsoon rains and relief from brutal heat – one reason we love the smell. The shrub is rough and tough and works well in virtually any landscape.

There are many other fragrant desert plants that can be used in a lush and luxuriant desert landscape, not to mention plants with fragrant flowers – a topic for another day.

Come visit with me! I will be out and about this season – speaking, selling books – not to mention offering a wide variety of courses – some of these classes are free! Be sure to sign up for my newsletter for a look ahead.

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Speaking of Books

soule-books-buyDo you have a copy of this one I wrote?

“A great reference book is key to successful gardening in the region where you live. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening takes the guesswork out of gardening for anyone residing in the Southwest. With this book, you’ll know what to do each month to enjoy a thriving garden all year, from January to December. Chronologically organized, this guide is full of critical gardening when-to and how-to advice, along with illustrated step-by-step instructions.

The book’s author is Jacqueline Soule, a Tucson-based gardening expert. She knows this arid region inside and out, and she’s written several articles and books packed with her gardening advice. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening showcases Soule’s expertise in one easy-to-read guide.”

Available on my book selling site – ,and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

Note – the cover image is Tagetes lemmonii, photo courtesy AZNPS, the Arizona Native Plant Society.

© Article copyright Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.


2 thoughts on “Fragrant Plants for Your Desert Garden

  1. Greetings!
    I’m excited to have found your site. My husband and I have retired and moved to Safford Arizona 2 years ago. We live south of Safford about 7 miles in a sandy river bed area just below Mt. Graham. We moved from California. (Please don’t hold that against us. Lol) I have gardened for many years but this sandy soil, wind and intense heat is a completely different animal. Many things have died over the last summer and now the heat is back. Fall planting was much more successful.
    I look forward to reading your books and learning so much from you.
    God bless,
    Stephanie Ripple

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Welcome to Arizona. Where you live now is a real challenge – but also can be very rewarding if you shift perspectives a tad. I am working on an online class for Fall 2024 called the “Elements of Southwest Gardening” that might help.

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