When I started my year-long project of getting to know the flowers in my neighborhood, I assigned myself a different task every month. The task for June was to learn how to capture the scent of flowers.
For me these simple assignments always lead to some place unexpected. But I had no idea when I set out how complicated this particular quest would become. My search expanded from a month to a year and by the time it was done, I had read dozens of books on perfume, attended three workshops (on essential oils, natural perfumery and distillation), fallen in love with chemistry, vied for a special bottle of perfume in an Ebay auction and finally circled back around to where it all began: the scent of flowers.
It started with the scent of spring.
I still remember the first time I noticed it. I had walked outside my brick apartment building on one of those sunny days in late January that brighten the grey Seattle winters with a promise of spring. I was halfway down the block, on my way to the supermarket, when I caught a whiff of a fragrance. It reminded me of jasmine in its piercing sweetness but more delicate. I looked around but I didn’t see any flowers, just the usual boxy green hedges and evergreen trees common to my neighborhood.
The scent baffled me, especially because it was so striking, in those dull grey days before any flowers appeared. For years, I recorded the date I first smelled the scent of spring in my calendar. January 27, 2001. February 2, 2002, February 5, 2009. But the source remained a mystery.
Until 2004. That’s the year I learned about a fragrant shrub: sweet box (also known as sarcococcus humilis) commonly used in Seattle as a hedge. It has small white flowers, wisps of white asterisks, which punctuate the stem and are almost hidden under the glossy green leaves. This plant loves shade and prefers to grow under the canopy of another shrub. Thus the invisibility of the flowers, which bloom in January and give off an intensely sweet scent.
I thought once I had identified the source, it would be easy to find the scent of spring, yet it continues to elude me. I bought a small shrub of sweet box and planted it in one of the big pots on the front porch of my apartment building, but it never bloomed in captivity.
Then my landlord hired a landscape architect to redo the front of our apartment building. They tore out the scraggly juniper hedges and the strip of weedy front lawn; they also got rid of the cherry tree and all the daffodil and tulip bulbs planted by the residents. The new landscaping features all the low-maintenance shrubs that are in fashion in Seattle right now: hebe, mountain laurel and rows of sweet box. Yet even when the sweet box is in bloom, I can bend down and sniff the white flowers and smell nothing.
It’s as if the fragrance wants to surprise you. It takes a certain combination of factors for it to emerge: a sunny day, an enclosed space (like a front porch), perhaps just a hint of a breeze, one that stirs the leaves.
The scent of spring always arrives around the same time as the fuzzy white buds of the goat willow, the flimsy yellow forsythia blossoms and the first robins. It’s one of my phenological markers during the year, and heralds the beginning of several months of increasingly delightful scents.
On my walk between my apartment and my work, eight blocks apart, I pass through a landscape of scents as I move through time. February and violets. The hyacinths and jonquils of March. In April, I stop on my walks to dip my nose into the cups of tulips. In May, it is the irises which lure me.
They wave their flimsy purple flags throughout my neighborhood. I used to walk right past them, dismissing them as grandmother flowers. Irises reproduce like rabbits, the knobbly brown rhizomes multiplying as they spread out like fans. They must be divided and given away, to neighbors surely, judging by the similarity of the species in the front yards of my neighborhood. They seemed to match the age of the buildings, brick apartments and wooden frame houses, some dating back to 1905.
It was Richard who first introduced me to the scent of irises. On our first date, we went for a walk around Green Lake, a Seattle tradition, during which he identified every tree (not a Seattle tradition). He was both a poet and a scientist, a combination that charmed me. On our second date, we walked around my neighborhood which is when he introduced me to the scent of irises.
They are shy flowers. They do not perfume the air, like the more wanton flowers: jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria. With iris, you have to give them your full attention. Bend down. Cup the flower in your hand. Poke your nose in between the soft petals of the falls.
I was stunned by what I found there. The scent was voluptuous: a mixture of sugar and violets. At least, that’s how it smelled to me. Richard said his ex-wife thought they smelled like old girdles.
The relationship with Richard didn’t last past a season but my love for irises persisted. A few years later I persuaded Michael, my new love, to drive down to Schreiners, a fabled iris farm near Salem, Oregon. It was May. I will never forget the moment we stepped outside his car. The scent that heretofore I had only known as a fleeting aroma enveloped me, as a cloud of sweet iris scent drifted down from the fields beyond the parking lot.
Schreiners offers a lot for the iris lover: a gift shop, a nursery, a catalog, picnic tables and a ten acre display garden where over 500 varieties of irises grow in masses in mounded beds. Visitors strolled through the grassy aisles, catalogs in hand, pointing out the features they admired: fringed falls, speckled standards, bright orange beards like neon caterpillars. Everyone was dazzled by the colors and shapes of the irises, yet no one seemed to notice their scent. I was the only person bending over and smelling the flowers.
I bobbed up and down the rows, quickly learning that the darker the iris, the more luscious the scent. My favorites were in the range of black, irises with names like Hello Darkness and Around Midnight. The blues were also delightful: they tended to be sweet and amiable.
Schreiners also sells cut irises, which surprised me. I had never seen them as cut flowers before and I wondered why. On our way home, we purchased a dozen. Inside Michael’s small car, the odor of iris bloomed and swelled. Within a half hour we were giddy with it, another half hour and we were dizzy. It’s not an easy scent to take in enclosed spaces, perhaps one reason the iris has not caught on as a cut flower.
We discovered another reason after we got the flowers home. When irises decay, they turn into blobs of brown goo that are viscous and rubbery to the touch. When I mopped up the puddles off the top of the piano, I found they had stripped the varnish off the wood. And the smell—yes, it does resemble old girdles.
We are just at the tail end of iris season here in Seattle. A few are still blooming here and there, but it is the next wave of scents that are wafting through the air. The incredibly complex and varied fragrances of the roses. The spice of peonies. I can look forward in July to the honeyed scent of linden, and the sweetness of honeysuckle, and the aroma of jasmine. Every year brings a new surprise. Something I had not noticed before. This year it’s the honeyed scent of black locust blossoms, which are falling right now.
Several years ago, I had an extra ticket to the Opera and invited a screenwriter I had just met. When he showed up at my door, my heart sank. It wasn’t the way he was dressed—he looked sharp in a sports coat, worn jeans and cowboy boots. It was the sight of the supermarket rose in his hand that made me wince.
Despite all I knew about the provenance of this supermarket rose, I brought it up to my nose to sniff. But it smelled like nothing, perhaps a faint whiff of the plastic in which it was wrapped.
This rose was the perfect product of the modern rose industry, described so well by Amy Stewart in Flower Confidential. Wanting to learn about how roses were grown for the florist trade, Stewart flew to Ecuador where she attended a trade show promoting the products. She walked down aisles lined with giant flowers. Roses with blooms bigger than a baseball, than a peony, than a dahlia. Roses with stems as thick as a finger, absolutely straight, with no thorns. Roses so tall that, when placed in waist-high vases, they towered over her head.
In the quest to breed the perfect rose for the floral industry: a rose whose petals won’t fall, whose stem won’t break, whose thorns won’t prick–the scent has been bred out of them. Not surprising as it is the very chemical that makes roses decay (ethylene) that gives the rose its scent.
Ethylene is produced in large quantities by apples, which is why you can put an apple in a paper bag with a green banana or a rock-hard avocado and the other fruit will ripen. Ethylene is also responsible for two plant functions that florists abhor. One is abscission, which causes the leaves to fall from a tree or the petals to fall from a rose. The other is senescence, which simply means aging.
The rose my date brought me sat on my desk in a crystal vase for two weeks. Not a petal fell. When I finally decided to discard it, I pulled the clump of petals off the stem in a lump. It never smelled. It never drooped. It was perfect if you wanted a rose that only looked good. I want a rose that smells that smells like a rose.
Assignment for This Week
- Go for a scent walk. Walk around your neighborhood and hunt for fragrances. When you catch a whiff of an aroma that intrigues you, try to track it down to its source. Scents are almost as elusive as birds. Here are some tips that I use. Look up rather than down. Look around rather than close.
- If you had to choose your five favorite flower scents, what would they be?
The stunning photo of the inside of an iris was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The photo of the sarcococcus plant in bloom and the tall purple iris were taken by Waverly Fitzgerald. The rose and the peony flowers were photographed by Shaw Fitzgerald.