The power of scent

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Tagetes lemmonii has leaves smelling of passionfruit, and blooms in winter

I always find the weeks leading up to the shortest day of the year to be very dreary. The short days of mid-winter seem to drain my interest in gardening, and the cold, bleak weather isn't very conducive to being outside. Leafless trees and shrubs present a grim picture, there are lots of gaps in my borders where herbaceous plants have died down, and flowers are few and far between. However, one of the compensations of the season is the blooming of some very fragrant plants, which when their perfume is inhaled, lift my spirits by immediately transporting me to another place and time.

It is amazing how closely the sense of smell is connected with memory and mood. The sense of smell is the most basic of the senses - in the animal world it is key to survival. The olfactory bulb, which receives information about what we smell, passes information to other areas closely connected to it in the brain, known collectively as the limbic system. The structures in the limbic system play a major role in controlling, among other things, memory, emotion and mood - hence explaining why the sense of smell plays such a big role in these areas.

Creamy-white jonquil that blooms in winter in Sydney

A walk around my garden this week was like a stroll down memory lane. The memory evoked by a plant's fragrance is immediate. Many of these associations date from our childhood, where very strong memories relating to odours are laid down. A clump of creamy-white jonquils in bloom this week, with their heady scent, bring to my mind in intense clarity my grandmother in her country garden, picking bunches of these flowers for the house. Their scent also conjures up recollections of the crisp air and log fires during our holidays there in winter.

Daphne odora f. alba

Elsewhere in my garden, the first starry bloom of Daphne odora has opened. Its crisp, zesty perfume reminds me of my childhood in the Blue Mountains, where a robust shrub grew along one of the many stone pathways that wandered through our garden. Posies of the Daphne were often picked to take when visiting friends. I haven't seen that garden for 13 years but one whiff of Daphne makes it reappear in its entirety before my eyes - the creation over 50 years of my keen gardening parents. Other fragrant plants out now, such as sweet violets, sweet alice (Lobularia maritima) and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), all conjure up pleasant memories from my past.

Lobularia maritima in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney, with fragrant flowers in winter

When flower scents are associated with happy times in the past, smelling them can make us feel good. But even without a specific memory being attached, pleasant aromas can uplift our spirits, because of the role of scent in mood and emotion. Plant lore suggests that certain fragrances induce particular states of mood - such as lavender soothing emotional stress and tension; rosemary acting as an invigorating pick-me-up when one is feeling fatigued; thyme helping to raise the spirits when one is feeling down. Whatever their specific effects might be, I love to smell scented flowers and fondle fragrant leaves, which include fruit salad sage (Salvia dorisiana), lemon and lime trees, and the passionfruit-scented mountain marigold (Tagetes lemonnii), as I walk around my garden in mid-winter. They all act as an instant antidote to the desolate days at this time of year.

Fragrance certainly adds a rich dimension to our gardens in a number of ways! I'd love to know your favourite scented plants.

Reader Comments

  • By Rebecka 2481 Monday, 15 June 2015

    Yes indeed. I was delighted to see my Jasminum Nitidum had two flowers blooming yesterday (ah the fragrance of jasmine at this time of year!) and several more on its way. I"m in subtropical Northern NSW but this is the first time that this jasmine has flowered in winter! Happy, if short and weakly warm, days! How nice to have that flowering now. Deirdre

  • By Janna 0 Monday, 15 June 2015

    Oh, Deirdre, your words of "short days" and "bleak, desolate, cold" weather did make me smile. Paul and I sat outside having lunch yesterday, grinning from ear to ear about how lucky we were with our wonderfully warm Sydney winters. It"s all relative! Your post reminds me of my very first trip to Australia. From the ages of 4 to 9 we spent every summer in the south of France. I arrived here, aged 30, and instantly thought of France...the smell of Eucalyptus, remembered after all those years. Yes it was a bit ironic that I wrote the blog on a bleak Sunday morning but by the afternoon, it was a magnificent day and I spent a couple of very pleasant hours pottering in my garden, until darkness fell and drove me indoors! Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Monday, 15 June 2015

    I relate to your comments on short days - the winter solstice always being welcome as one can look forward to longer days being on their way. I always seem to be in the middle of something (repotting etc) when darkness hits me these short days. Re "smells" mint always takes me back to a family holiday house in Lawson in the Blue Mtns. Outdoor dunny and near the tap where we washed our hands the mint was prolific and the perfume takes me straight back to happy holidays in the mountains. Isn"t it amazing how a fragrance like the mint takes you back to happy days in your past! I agree the short days are annoying when you are in the garden - the cold and dark seem to descend so rapidly. Anyway, I did enjoy yesterday afternoon"s sunshine! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2073 Monday, 15 June 2015

    I have just come in from the garden and one of my veraya rhododendrums is flowering profusely and filling its garden corner with a sweet perfume while above in a murraya is a white catleya orchid with 5 spikes of flowers with its fragrance seeking attention. I stuck a piece of the orchid in the tree about ten years ago and it has never looked back and is magnificent now. The perfume makes up for the lack of sun this morning. Sue Those plants sound delightful. I love orchids in trees and have been attaching some to my trees in recent years. Deirdre

  • By Gil 2037 Monday, 15 June 2015

    Lovely evocations, Deirdre. All so unique, and the daphne and osmanthus so attractive. Though not many are out at the moment, dianthus is another of my top five. Also alocasia and brugmansia from warmer climates. Thanks, Gil. There are so many different fragrances in the plant world. Deirdre

  • By Lynne 2479 Monday, 15 June 2015

    Ah yes, the powerful olfactory gland. Daffodils, hyacinth, jonquils all transport me back to my childhood in UK. Freesias and roses conjure up my Mum. Wattle brings Sydney to mind..and many more flower scents transport me. It is extraordinary how a certain scent can change ones mood dramatically, if only for a moment. It must be very distressing to lose the sense of smell. Lots of memories attached to plant perfumes for you! I too dread losing the sense of smell. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Monday, 15 June 2015

    My fragrant osmanthus, smells beautiful at my back steps and is very noticeable. It is amazing that such a little flower can make such a difference. I really miss my white fragrant freesia"s from when I was a child. Sometimes I wander around the garden with my nose up in the air, wondering which plant is so enticing with fragrance. The Osmanthus has a lovely scent even though, as you mention, the flowers are so small. It is lovely to walk around the garden and find various fragrances. Deirdre

  • By Helen 7256 Monday, 15 June 2015

    Your comments re bleak time of year are so true. We have had very cold weather here for late autumn 7 early winter. I was walking around the garden today & was really cheered up by patches of jonquils & fragrance of Viburnum burkwoodii & Buddleia salvifolia - palalavender flowers & beautiful lush foliage. I planted two Osmanthus fragrans as soon as we moved here 3 years ago - they are still settling in

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 15 June 2015

    Aaaah! Osmanthus and brugmansia are my winter garden perfumes. I haven"t managed to add new plants after what was lost ( this included my violets) during the drought a few years. I am nevetheless delighted with what I have Thank you Deidre for the reminder. It is amazing how the Brugmansia keeps on flowering through the year. Mine is in full bloom at the moment! Deirdre

  • By Susan 2430 Monday, 15 June 2015

    My favourite fragrance has to be hyacinths. Every year we try to get to Floriade in the early morning in the early weeks when their perfume is at its best. It takes me back to my first classroom in Surrey, sixty years ago. The teacher grew them on the windowsill. As a little Australian kid I had never seen or smelt anything like it and I still love them. What a delightful memory! Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 Tuesday, 16 June 2015

    You have lightened my heart as yesterday I felt somewhat gloomy looking at my rather dreary garden now I have cut salvias back losing much colour but now I look forward to the better days to come. have resisted cutting back all the Salvia Leucantha in different parts,leaving some blooms to brighten my days. Roll on Spring with all its delights. I still have some Salvia leucantha in bloom too. I am looking forward to spring too. One good thing about winter is being able to move plants around, which I am busy doing at the moment! Deirdre

  • By noeline 2081 Tuesday, 16 June 2015

    lavender and old fashioned roses take me back to the farm of my grandparents.They and the farm are now gone,flooded and invisable under a dam at Mangrove creek but they are always with me when I catch the scent of either.Thankyou Diedre,I never fully appreciated the connection to the fragrances. How nice that you have that connection between roses and lavender and your grandparents" farm. It is amazing how strong the memories can be, especially childhood ones. Deirdre

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