Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Scentimental Memories

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..."

Did you know that olfaction, or the sense of smell, is controlled by the same part of the brain that controls memories and emotions? According to the Sense of Smell Institute (yes, there is such a thing), “People recall smells with a 65% accuracy after a year, while the visual recall of photos sinks to about 50% after only three months.” This is why a whiff of someone’s perfume might bring back a memory of your grandmother or an antiseptic smell might immediately evoke an unpleasant memory of a trip to the emergency room.

I know that the few times in recent years that I’ve had to don a hospital gown, the soft, powdery scent of the gown always brought back the pleasant memories of my children’s births. On the other hand, for years I could not stand the smell of Johnson and Johnson’s baby lotion—the kind that used to come in a pink bottle. I used it years ago as an all-purpose moisturizer when I was pregnant with my first son. Despite its clean, fresh fragrance, it always reminded me of having morning sickness.

A few other fun facts that I learned from the Sense of Smell Institute’s website are that our sense of smell is most acute in the evening; our sense of smell often diminishes as we age; and a woman’s sense of smell is keener than a man’s. Of course, we all knew that last fact already!

One of my teaching assignments for many years was a creative writing class for juniors and seniors. During the unit on descriptive writing, we discussed the importance of using all the senses. One assignment I gave was to write a description of a scene or place whose smells evoked memories. I gave them some possible prompts, such as going to the dentist, a trip to the emergency room, Thanksgiving dinner, or a day at the county fair. Writing descriptively about smells is not easy, so we brainstormed before writing, coming up with a list of possible adjectives. I started them off with words like spicy, aromatic, and pungent, and then they added to the list. By the end, of course, it often degenerated into words like raunchy, putrid, or foul, but it gave them something to work with.

As with any creative writing assignment, the resulting pieces were often nothing out of the ordinary, but I would always be pleasantly surprised by a few students whose papers were so descriptive you could almost smell the images on the page. But all of them quickly related to this assignment; they began remembering certain scents that brought specific images or events to mind.

What started me thinking about the importance of our sense of smell was a post on Sunday by Amy at High and Dry. She showed a photo of a new honeysuckle vine that she had, and I thought how much I loved honeysuckle. Strangely, the memory that the scent of honeysuckle triggers for me has nothing to do with the flower itself. When I was a young teenager I used to wear a perfumed lotion from Avon that had a honeysuckle scent. Even today that smell brings back memories of a time when I was younger, dreaming of boyfriends and wondering what the future would hold for me. I am going to add a honeysuckle vine to my ever-growing plant wish list!

Many of the rest of you have mentioned in describing a flower what a lovely fragrance it had. I couldn’t think of any flower I have that has a fragrance I am drawn to, so I decided it was time to stick my nose into things, so to speak.

I have two Knockout roses, currently under
daily attack by the Japanese beetles.
They smell like, well . . .roses,
but nothing like the fragrance of tea roses.

One plant I didn't have to stick my nose into to take in its aroma is the Russian sage, which does smell somewhat like its namesake.

Its strong, almost sickenly sweet scent
usually clings to my hands and clothes after
I've been weeding around it. I've been
trimming a few branches from one
plant that has fallen over and covered up
one of the roses. As I was doing this, I
noticed the rose beneath it had no damage
from the Japanese beetles. I thought I'd
hit on a possible deterrent to the beetles--the strong aroma put off by the sage. But if you
look closely in the lower right of this photo,
you'll see my theory doesn't hold up.
Apparently, the beetles don't mind its

I had to "bee" very careful when checking out some of the other flowers. The salvia "May Night" also gives off a sage aroma, but it's not as sweet as the perovskia, nor as noticeable until you get right down to the plant.

Upon the advice of Marnie at Lilacs and Roses, I checked a nearby pot for the the heliotrope which I included in my last post. She mentioned the wonderful vanilla scent of this flower. I did get a faint whiff, but the plant I have doesn't put out much fragrance.

Last week I noticed these tiny little blooms for the first time on a creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum. This is a plant that's billed as a good groundcover; in fact, I've seen it marketed more this year as a "steppable." But I've pretty much ignored it until I saw these blooms. Since it's in the thyme family, I assumed it would have a scent and bent very low to get a whiff. It does have a faint fragrance, but it's such a small plant and we'd had rain the night before that I wasn't sure if I was smelling thyme or damp grass.

By now I was beginning to wonder if I was losing my sense of smell or sinus congestion was kicking in again. But there was no doubt why the nepeta "Walker's Low" is called catmint. It didn't take much sniffing to get that minty aroma.

Obviously, there are many flowers that are grown for reasons other than their fragrance. When I bought this cleome I was cautioned not to plant it too close to the house because it had an unpleasant odor. For the sake of my research, I sacrificed my nose and took a good strong whiff. It doesn't smell good, that's for sure, but it's not disgusting either. I've planted it far away from the house, but I don't think I'd notice it even if it were closer.

Well, that's it. Despite risking bee stings by sticking my nose into nearly every plant I have, I didn't find any other really fragrant flowers. I think I'm missing out on an important sensory effect in the garden and need to plant more flowers for their scent. I would love to walk out my door and smell gardenias or jasmine, but I don't think that is possible in my zone 5 garden, other than maybe in a potted plant. I'm open to any suggestions for plantings--care to share your thoughts on creating a sweet-smelling garden?


  1. Dear Rose.....I wish I could come over on my magic carpet and bring you into my garden.....I am sure that your sense of smell would enjoy what is on offer.....this is one of my favourite subjects, I think scents hold deep in us and as you say evoke memories, not always good.
    I know that Avon perfume you speak of and it made me smile....I used to wear that many years ago....

    Lavender is one of my favourite scents.....I have at least twenty plants, all in bloom at the moment. Rosa rugosa and honeysuckle the evening my garden is awash with fragrance and draws in moths. Even Mr 'P' will walk out and say "hhmmm what is that lovely smell?"

    I love this post Rose, and I so enjoyed walking around your garden with your commentary on the blooms and their scent....lovely bee by the way.....

    I think I will take a stroll now in the fresh morning air and have a good sniff!!!!!

  2. That's so interesting! I agree that smells (or should I say fragrance!)bring back old memories from long ago, often at the most unexpected moments.They take you right back and the feeling can be quite strange!

    I had no idea that our sense of smell was better in the evening. I thought that the sweetpeas which I have cut from the garden 'put out' more sent at night not that I was more suseptable!
    Off to work now (only 3 days to the holidays, yippee!)
    Lovely post :)

  3. Cheryl, I'd love to get on that magic carpet! Of course, lavender! I'm going to have to start a new flowerbed area, and lavender would be a great choice in part of it.
    My garden is certainly drawing in all kinds of insects, so there must be more scent than I am picking up.
    Enjoy your morning stroll!

    Suburbia, I didn't know either that our sense of smell is stronger in the evening, but I did know I could smell better than my husband:) Sweet peas--I don't have those; that's another good idea. Thanks!

  4. That kitty could be a clone of my Orkin-always in the garden too! Smells are great. Your post brings up memories for me. I can relate to the Avon perfume. They used to make the best perfumes and those bottles were great too. For me it was the rose cream Avon made, smelled JUST like a rose.

  5. Forgot to say, I think my favorite garden scent is 4 O'clocks. I have just recently decided it. Anyone else love this scent?

  6. I love flower scents. When we were walking the cliffs the other day I grabbed Husband and said 'sniff.' He couldn't smell anything so then I stuck his nose in some wild honeysuckle. And it was gorgeous. I love to break off bits of rosemary or lavender too and walk with them so I can hold them to my nose now and again.

    And it's so true about perfume being a powerful reminder of times past or of people.

    If I smell someone nice I usually say and that can be embarrassing sometimes if it's a stranger in the middle of the supermarket1

  7. Oh and we recently bought some French lavender to go with our English and it has a much stronger and almost antiseptic - but not unpleasant - smell.

  8. Hi, Rose--One of the reasons I started a white garden is that scent is more intense in white flowers than it is in their more brightly colored cousins. I think you mentioned in your purple post how attractive the color seems to bees--white flowers have to compensate with scent. My favorite scent is white valerian, which fills the garden with a wonderful vanilla fragrance (it would be too intense if you actually put your nose in it)--white heliotrope is similar, though I couldn't find any this year. White autumn clematis is also fabulous, as are my white lilies (labelled "stargazer" at Lowe's, but could that be right?) And right now, we can smell the white butterfly bushes across the yard.

    I remember this perfume made by Love that was also honeysuckle scented--I can't recall the name, but all the girls wore it so high school dances could be a little cloying . . .especially since all the boys were wearing Brut.

  9. Wow, great post, Rose!

    Lavender saves me in my garden. My Gardenias smell heavenly but the drought is holding them back, as well as the Magnolia blossoms. Those are my faves.

    I would have loved to sit in your Creative Writing class. I like the assignment you gave. You write so well.

    Once in a while, I'll smell something that takes me way back in time. For instance, I smelled a cherry lollipop recently, and for an instant, I was right back in Dr. Healy's office, 1960's. That's when they gave little children "suckers" after a check-up or dreaded booster shot.

    Gosh, I remember Brut, Tabu, Musk, and OLD SPICE! lol My husband still wears Old Spice :o)

  10. hat a wonderful post! So many of us have gotten caught up in the 'showy flowers' that we have forgotten about the smells a garden can have. I will also put smell on my plant wish list as a reminder. Thanks again for the coffee and letting me vent. I always feel better after a gab session with you!

  11. Rose,

    As always your posts are thoughtful and thought provoking! I have so many sense memories...Mimosa trees remind me of college and a true rose smell...just gives me pleasure!


  12. Tina, That is Tarzan (I didn't name any of the cats) who spends most of his time outdoors warding off prowling rabbits supposedly. I used to collect some of those Avon bottles too; thanks for reminding me of that.
    And four o'clocks--there's a flower out of the past! My mother used to always grow those; I remember collecting the seeds from them. I didn't know they smelled good!

  13. Liz, I don't mind if a stranger tells me I smell good:) Lavender and rosemary--good ideas for something fragrant.
    One memory I forgot to include--I always wore "White Shoulders" when my husband and I were dating. Maybe I should buy some before my next birthday so I get a card this time!

    Cosmo, Aha, there's my problem--I have hardly any white flowers in my garden. Valerian sounds heavenly; I love vanilla. And I've always wanted some sweet autumn clematis; I just have to figure out where to plant it.
    My husband always wore Brut when we were dating:)

    Mary, Lavender has definitely been added to my list today.
    Thanks for the compliment on the assignment; I always had fun in that class, and I think the students did, too.
    Thanks for taking me down Memory Lane--lots of girls wore Tabu, but I preferred White Shoulders; Hubby wore Brut and something else I cannot remember...Now he just depends on his Irish Spring:)

    Beckie, I can see us now plant shopping next spring, with our noses in all the plants:)
    Vent away anytime! You've had to listen to me for ages:)

    Gail, Thanks. It's true that smells often bring back memories more than other senses. When I smell lilacs it reminds me of my college years.

  14. What an interesting post Rose! Your point about the honeysuckle scent and the memories it has for you makes me wonder if it's possible to create a garden (or a border at least) based on scents that have strong memory associations. What do you think?

  15. Rose for fragrance in the garden two of my favorites are Tall Phlox. 'David' has a white bloom and just yesterday a neighbor that was having her daily walk about stopped to ask "what was that wonderful scent". Had to be David. The other is a pinkish lavender bloomer called 'Robert Poore'. He is at least as smelly as David,tall handsome and resists mildew.

  16. Hi Rose, I am back. I was just thinking about your post. Smell is such a memory jogger. When I think of honeysuckle I think of the wicked (as it is known now) Japanese Honeysuckle. Before it was known to be trying to take over the world it was grown in many gardens including my childhood garden. I remember many summer days of having to stay on the porch because of rain or being, ahem, grounded and I would sniff and sip the nectar from the flowers.

    Just this weekend I was shopping for a new fragrance to wear. The one I chose has a definite jasmine in the mix.

    That smell of yeast bread or rolls, cinnamon and sage. Yummmm... Such warm fuzzy feelings these evoke.

    I have noticed my sense of smell is faltering. A sad state of affairs but I will trudge on through old age as gracefully as possible.

  17. Hi Rose. That's a very interesting topic. I've heard it said things smell differently to some people. Also that some people can't smell a certain odor like some can't see certain colors. I belong to a antique rose forum where they discuss rose scents. The experts sound like wine connoisseurs when describing a smell, "a strong musky rose fragrance with a hint of spicy lavender and smoky undertones of citrus and licorice."

    I think it's fascinating.

  18. VP, that's an intriguing idea! Of course, you would want only pleasant memories:)

    Lisa, I don't have any phlox; I'm beginning to see why I don't have much fragrance here. I'm picturing you sitting on the porch being in trouble:)
    Bread baking, cinnamon--now those are powerful images for me; definitely remind me of my grandmother who was the master bread baker.
    I used to think I had a great sense of smell; I could smell a gas odor or something burning before anyone else. But I'm beginning to wonder if mine is going as well.

    Marnie, Yes, the same source I mentioned said that people smell things differently, which I guess accounts for our different tastes in perfume. I don't think I could make it in the rose connoisseur group; my sense of smell is not as good as it once was.

  19. Great post, Rose. Have had fun catching up. The heady scent of lilacs and lily of the valley haunt me, a reminder of my Mother's spring garden. I hate the smell of marigolds and mums! The memory of Sweet Woodruff sustains me throughout the winter until, thank you God, May once again arrives ...

  20. Rose, I found a cople of quotes to go along with the theme of your post. Hope you enjoy them.

    "Colored scents that fill the air as drowsy insects hum around in the meadow is the place
    of secret magic where nature alone renews itself."
    - Kate Bergquist

    "Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet
    conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains..."
    - Diane Ackerman

  21. Rose, I have lemon verbena growing in a pot by the front door of our apartment here in Illinois. I pinch off a leaf and breathe deeply almost every time I get ready to go somewhere. It's edible too. I've used it in stir-fry, soup, casseroles, even tea. I hope it survives the winter! At least the various mints, oregano, and thyme (also lemon-scented) growing along with it will survive, for sure. One of our friends from Missouri (a registered aromatherapist) introduced us to essential oils a few years ago, and we have found a way to enjoy our favorite scents even when away from home or in the dead of winter.

  22. Rose, how interesting about smell’s connection to memories/emotions. I always find scents so evocative. Tastes too. I had miserable morning sickness like you – it was like all odors and tastes were magnified. I wonder if that explains it.

    You sound like a fabulous writing teacher. I try to use all senses in my writing too.

    We are having Japanese beetle problems too but not as bad as other years. I’d love to know a deterrent if one exists other than just drowning them in soapy water.

    The postman warned us against planting flowers around a mailbox as carriers get stung.

  23. Joey, Definitely lilacs! One of my favorite signs of spring.

    Beckie, Thanks for the quotes. The last one sums up the idea so well.

    W2W, I know I've smelled lemon verbena before. That would be a good addition to the garden for sure.

    Sarah, Thanks, I always enjoyed teaching that class. This was a case where I also learned a lot from my students! There are various remedies for Japanese beetles, but nothing that seems to work on a lasting scale.
    Hope you are getting settled in.

  24. For spring in shade you should get Phlox divaricata 'Clouds of Perfume.' It truly does perfume the whole garden. If you've got a lot of space, Asclepias syriaca has the most wonderful vanilla scent in early summer. It's a super thug, so I have to get rid of mine. For summer, the Trumpet Lilies & some of the Orientals are good. For fall scent, plant a Katsura tree. For a fun close up sniff, plant Calycanthus floridus 'Athens.' Its flowers smell like a cross between strawberry & banana. I've read that individual plants of Heliotrope vary in the intensity of their perfume, so it may be you have a lame one.

  25. Loved reading this post. It was very informative. This is the first time I've visited your blog, but I'll be back. It looks like the kind of blog that I'll really enjoy.


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