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.