Fragrant Memories

Humans can distinguish about 10,000 different odor molecules. Research seems to indicate that we learn to like and dislike various odors based on the emotional associations we make upon our initial encounters with them, yet…

Our culture places such low value on olfaction that we have never developed a proper vocabulary for it. In A Natural History of the Senses, poet Diane Ackerman notes that it is almost impossible to explain how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it. There are names for all the pastels in a hue, she writes—but none for the tones and tints of a smell.

Except from The Mystery of Smell: The Vivid World of Odors by Maya Pines

At this time of year, most people are waxing poetic about the colors of autumn, reveling in the sense of sight. Yet another sense is tugging at me: fragrance. Gardening is for all the senses and fragrance is one of the most powerful for me. I showed my new neighbor who is new to gardening two weeds that he should keep in check: Bittersweet nightshade and Herb Robert geranium. To help him remember, I crushed their leaves and offered them up for him to smell.

As I was walking the neighborhood, the immediately recognizable scent of Clerodendrum trichotomum (Harlequin Glorybower or Peanut Butter Tree) caught my attention. The one in my yard had already stopped blooming and was sporting its red bracts and blue fruit. I planted it because I love its fragrance, which perfumes the vicinity (my neighbor Shelley commented that she enjoys the fragrance when she sits on her deck). How do you describe the luscious scent to someone that hasn’t smelled it before?

Phlox are still blooming in my garden, though probably not for long. Their subtle scent is comforting for some reason. Perhaps a wonderful childhood memory is the reason.

As the garden winds down for the winter, there are two scents I’m eagerly awaiting, both harbingers of spring: Sarcococca confusa (Sweetbox) and Daphne odora. Sarcococca’s potent yet light scent comes from surprisingly small, fringed white flowers tucked along its stems. The fragrance of daphne, on the otherhand, is a powerhouse of odor molecules; even several flowers in a confined area can be overwhelming. Yet, walking past the shrub near my driveway or the one by my garden gate is a taste (or scent) of heaven. I can’t describe the scent to myself let alone to someone else. But it’s embedded in memory; pleasant ones, I might add.

What do pleasant scents from the garden conjure for you?