The author lives in a quiet rural community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.
Tropical flowers are known for their vibrant colors. Many of them also have an irresistible fragrance.
Here are 14 good-smelling trees, shrubs, and vines from the tropics and subtropics. Try growing them and add an exotic touch to your garden. And when they are in bloom, your olfactory sensors will thank you!
These plants are low maintenance and easy to grow. However, as with many tropical species, they do need plenty of light, heat, and moisture to thrive. If you live in temperate climates, grow these plants in containers so you could move them indoors for protection during cold winter months.
Also called frangipani, plumeria is unquestionably the most beautiful tropical flowering tree. Plumeria flowers come in a dazzling range of colors. Their timeless beauty and exotic scent evoke images of idyllic island getaways with white sandy beach and turquoise water. The alluring fragrance becomes more pervasive in the evening, perfuming the night air—to the delight of nocturnal creatures near and far! Plumeria does well in large pots, prefers full sun, well-drained soil. It can be grown easily from cuttings. Some plumeria cultivars shed all their leaves before going into full bloom.
Ylang ylang is native to the rainforests of tropical Asia. Its droopy, greenish-yellow flowers bloom year-round and exude an exquisite floral scent, hence it is also called the perfume tree or incense tree. The oil extracted from the petals is widely used in the aromatherapy and fragrance industry (particularly the famous Chanel No.5 perfume). In hot and humid climates, ylang ylang may reach 30–40 feet high and make an excellent shade tree in the garden. Young plants propagated from cuttings grow quickly and will bloom within a year or two.
Interestingly, coffee belongs to the gardenia family and can be grown in the garden as an ornamental plant or indoors as an attractive houseplant. It produces masses of brilliant white blossoms with pleasant jasmine-citrus scent. The lingering perfume and sweet nectar attract insects of all kinds! Pollinated flowers will set fruits or “berries” in a few weeks. Each fruit contains two seeds or “beans” which are harvested and processed into coffee. Coffee is usually grown as a commercial crop on farms and plantations. It loves acidic, well-drained soil, and thrives in high humidity.
This hardy tropical plant has been widely cultivated and is now available in hundreds of varieties. The showy flowers—from pure white to deep magenta—are exceptionally fragrant, with a strong rose geranium scent. Originated from the Mediterranean region, oleander does well in places with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Drought-tolerant and hassle-free, it makes excellent potted plants on decks and patios, or hedges around the yard for privacy.
Note: All parts of oleander are considered poisonous to humans and pets!
Angel’s trumpet likes partial shade and will do well in containers, provided it gets plenty of moisture. The large, dangling blossoms come in several colors, including creamy white, pastel pink, golden yellow, or apricot orange. Some hybrids produce fascinating double blossoms or variegated leaves. At sunset, the flowers release their captivating, lush perfume to attract pollinators. A fast grower, it needs occasional pruning to stay in desired shape and height. As with oleander, angel’s trumpet is considered poisonous. Plant with caution!
Also known as Giant Spider Lily, this tropical plant is super easy to grow! From a small bulb, it will grow quickly into a 5–6 feet tall shrub, with long graceful leaves and enormous flower stalks. The blossoms are usually white, but some cultivars produce pink or purple flowers. Their fresh, delicious fragrance attracts hordes of bees and butterflies! Crinum lily is a popular landscaping plant in many South Pacific islands, often seen along the beaches or around the pools at hotels and resorts. Extremely adaptable and salt-tolerant, it will grow in any type of soils. Abundant watering will make it bloom repeatedly.
Native to Africa and widely cultivated in tropical Polynesia, this evergreen shrub is slow growing but blooms year-round. The creamy white, sea-star shaped blossoms have a strong musty, spicy fragrance—a mix of vanilla, clove, and cinnamon. The irresistible scent can be smelled during the day and at night. In some Polynesian cultures, the milky sap extracted from the leaves and stems is used as an herbal remedy. Contrary to its name, Samoan gardenia belongs to the milkweed family and is not related to gardenia species. It does well in pots, prefers full sun and can tolerate poor, dry soil.
Puakenikeni is indigenous to the South Pacific region. The pretty blossoms have a long-lasting, intoxicating fragrance. As they mature, the flowers magically change color from creamy white to yellow to orange—while retaining their terrific perfume. The small round fruits also turn bright orange when ripe (not edible). This shrub grows best in full sun, acidic soil, and high humidity. If planted in the garden, give it plenty of room, as it could grow into a small tree! In many Pacific islands, including Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, and Hawaii, puakenikeni is a favorite flower for making lei necklaces.
Also known as ginger lily, these tropical perennials produce delicate white, yellow, or coral-pink flowers that resemble butterflies! The blossoms have a heady but pleasant sweet scent. The lovely fragrance is used in many tropical-themed cosmetic and beauty products. Grown easily from rhizomes, they prefer shady areas with wet, humus-rich soil. In Hawaii, these gingers are considered invasive because they spread uncontrollably in the rainforests. In temperate zones, they will do well as potted plants, just use extra-large containers to ensure the most luxuriant growth! Unlike their cousin the ordinary ginger, the roots of hedychium gingers are not edible.
People either love or hate this plant! The cloying fragrance of the flowers is so intense, especially at night, that it may cause an allergic reaction (sneezing fit) or asthma attack in some people! Night-blooming jasmine is, however, not real jasmine. It belongs to the nightshade family and is related to eggplants and tomatoes! A fast-growing shrub, it can become leggy, regular trimming will keep it in bushier shape. The plant goes into full bloom during the hot summer months, with masses of greenish-white or yellow tubular flowers covering the entire shrub. Their overpowering scent can be smelled hundreds of feet away.
Passionfruit flowers are exotic looking and possess an equally mesmerizing scent! Most notable is the flower of passionfruit liliko’i with a pungent floral aroma. Or the spectacular blue-purple passionflower with its hauntingly seductive perfume. These hardy vines are prolific climbers and will become invasive if left undisturbed. Young plants sprout quickly from seeds. They grow well in pots but will need trellis or bamboo poles for support. The flowers attract bees and nocturnal moths for pollination. An added benefit: Passionfruit vine produces edible fruits with a juicy, tangy-sweet flavor.
Native to tropical Asia, jasmine has hundreds of different varieties. Some behave like a vine, growing 10–15 feet long and happily trailing up an arbor or garden fence! Prized for their enchanting, hypnotic fragrance, jasmine flowers are popular (often as garlands) at religious ceremonies or wedding celebrations in many Southeast Asian cultures. Climbing jasmine likes moist, humus-rich soil. In temperate zones, the plant may die back or go dormant during cold winter months and regrow when warm weather returns. It will thrive in pots (and bloom profusely!) with regular fertilizing and watering.
Also known as wax plant, hoya is a perennial tropical vine native to south India. A vigorous climber—by twining and sending out little roots along the main vine to attach itself to whatever it can reach—hoya could potentially become an invasive weed, especially in warm-climate places. The extremely fragrant flowers (smell like orange blossoms) bloom in ball-like clusters. Some cultivars produce gorgeous flowers in lilac, crimson red, or chocolate brown! Hoya makes an attractive, easy-care house plant (particularly in hanging basket), provided it gets sufficient light and moisture.
Climbing Ylang Ylang
This plant is in the same family as the ylang ylang tree but reincarnates in the form of a vine! The flowers have a rich, fruity fragrance—a hint of pineapple, guava, and jackfruit. This unique scent gets stronger as the flowers mature, changing color from pale green to lemon yellow. Often hidden by the thick layer of leaves, the inconspicuous flowers are difficult to spot. It is the incredible smell that gives them away! Ylang ylang vine grows well in either partial shade or direct sun, prefers well-drained soil and high humidity. It can be propagated from woody stem cuttings or seeds.
The photos in this article were taken at the author’s garden located in the lower Puna district (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 12b) on the Big Island of Hawaii.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Viet Doan
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on May 12, 2020:
So grateful for your lovely comments Liz, Mary and Linda! These days, whenever fear and anxiety get to me, I go for a walk in my garden, taking a sniff of this or that flower, and voila, instantly feel better! Take care my friends, please stay safe and healthy.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 11, 2020:
Your photos and the flowers are beautiful! Your garden sounds like a wonderful place to explore.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 11, 2020:
Beautiful flowers. I posted many of your pictures on Pinterest. I have Ginger Lily in my garden and planted them near the entrance because of its sweet smell.
Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2020:
These are beautiful. Guaranteed to brighten up lockdown. This is a really bright and upbeat article.