A Tropical Fragrant Garden

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 1, 2000.

Perfumed plants should be included in a naturalist’s indigenous garden to make up for the lack of colour in Malaysian species. Fragrance adds a delightfully unique character to a tropical garden, but the plant’s utilitarian ‘objective’ for creating perfume is to attract pollinating insects, justifying the complex chemical process.

Fragrance advertises free nectar, a cheap commodity for the plant to produce, being just sugar syrup, and it is enough to attract insects, bats or birds. Often the plant is choosy about the pollinator and will release perfume only at certain times of the day or night when the desired visitor is around.

Fragrant plants include climbers, shrubs, trees and palms. Many have white or cream flowers that suggests that they are pollinated at night, and for most fragrance does seem more pervasive then than in the full heat of the day.

Jasminum sambac, the popular jasmine (pictured above), ‘bunga melor’ or ‘melati’, was brought from India, and is a restrained creeper that likes full sun and support for climbing. A recent perfume success in my garden is the very robust vine Chonemorpha macrophylla (left), just two plants would be enough to take care of a tennis court fence, so it needs lots of space and a strong support to climb on. Another popular and fragrant climber that is not so invasive is the drunken sailor or Rangoon creeper, Quisqualis indica, whose drooping fragrant flowers are red in bud, appearing white when first opened, before aging to pink and crimson.

The ‘chempaka’ tree (Michelia champaka) has ivory flowers (the orange variety is not so fragrant) that offer another exotic scent. This tree could be planted as a roadside tree or in a smaller garden, being a slower grower. Not so for the huge Dryobalanops aromatica, or ‘pokok kapor’. I planted a row nine years ago along the front fence, they are now 40 feet high with trunks about 6 inches in diameter. Fortunately the tree retains its lower branches as it grows, thus providing a good screen as well as allowing leaves to be picked and crushed, releasing the camphor fragrance that has made the tree an object of desire since the Arabs traded for it in the sixth century.

Perhaps my favorite fragrant tree is the ‘tembusu’, Fagraea fragrans (above). It is a tall forest tree that provides not only fragrant flowers that attract insects but also a red fruit that feeds bats, birds and other mammals.

The ‘kenanga’, Canangium odoratum (pictured above), is not so handsome a tree. With its drooping branches and habit of constantly dropping leaves it looks a bit unkempt, but its fragrance is the epitome of the ‘exotic’ east. The flowers are greenish, but fully fragrant when more yellow, and although it is hard to reconcile the two perfumes, apparently ‘ylang ylang’, or ‘kenanga’ oil, is a principal ingredient of Chanel No. 5. There is a dwarf variety of the tree that is good for mixed hedging and in smaller gardens.

The most successful hedge plant for fragrance must be ‘kemuning’, Murraya paniculata, its only disadvantage being unpredictable flowering. Left alone it will form a small tree with branches arching out and up, but planted densely in a trench and then pruned to create a fence, it creates a beautiful dark wall of foliage that is periodically lit by panicles of star-like white flowers with the sweetest of perfumes.

Vallaris glabra, or ‘kesidang’ (left), is more ‘oriental’ in character, and perhaps a liking for it is acquired. Burkhill describes the smell as ‘mousy, but agreeable to the natives of the east who like it’! To me it has the perfume of cooked pandan, and certainly when in bloom (once again an inconspicuous panicle of small white flowers) visitors exclaim at the smell of pandan, planted just beneath as a perfume puzzle. An essential ingredient of the ‘bunga rampai’, the finely sliced pot-pourri of fragrant plants used for Malay weddings, ‘kesidang’ is now unfortunately replaced by cheap scent.

For a cut fragrant flower, nothing is quite as spectacular as the entire inflorescence of the common coconut, and it makes a beautiful sculpture laid on a table. This flower may well have been the original ‘bunga manggar’ (right), tied at the top of a bamboo pole and carried at the head of a bridal procession.

Herbs and spice plants also have strong concentrations of the essential oils that make perfume. Crushing leaves of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, or plucking the many varieties of basil whose perfumes range from lemon to aniseed, tearing citronella and lemon grass, turmeric and ‘kesum’, all make for a heady experience. After inhaling several it becomes increasingly difficult to identify anything, but having such plants adds as much to your life as to your garden. With plants like these, one should never need aroma therapy!

Gardens and perfume are about reinforcing a sense of place. A Balinese statue garlanded in jasmine recalls our common Hindu traditions and the many fragrant and useful plants that have been brought to Malaysia by migrants from all over Asia.

Common fragrant trees, such as frangipanni or Plumeria, are only rarely planted in Malay gardens because of their association with burial grounds, where they readily strike in exposed and open positions. This Mexican tree, brought by the Spanish, has been known in South East Asia since the seventeenth century when it was noted by the botanist Rumpf. Even I have accorded a place to this tree in my ‘indigenous’ garden, as its flowers dropped on the footpaths of PJ formed one of my early impressions of Malaysia when I barely knew one plant from another.

Certainly perfume can provide an intriguing trail through the plant kingdom, and a developed nose can analyze the characteristics of smell for yet another key to identifying plants that may otherwise be difficult to place. Specific species in the family of Zingiberaceae, the gingers that occur throughout the Malaysian forests, are particularly difficult to identify because they only occasionally flower, but the essential fragrant oils may provide a clue for taxonomic identification.

For anyone interested in fragrant plants, an indispensable reference is the Dictionary of Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula by Burkhill, who was Director of Gardens in the Straits Settlements between 1912 and 1925. With 2,400 pages its coverage is encyclopaedic, and includes information on perfume extraction. Priced at only $150 for both volumes it is matchless value. A limited number are available at the Malaysian Nature Society bookshop.