Pleasures of the Nose

A garden full of sweet odours is a garden full of charm, a most precious kind of charm not to be implanted by mere skill in horticulture or power of purse, and which is beyond explaining. It is born of sensitive and very personal preferences yet its appeal is almost universal. Fragrance speaks to many to whom color and form say little, and it “can bring as irresistibly as music emotions of all sorts to the mind.” Besides the plants visible to the eye there will be in such a garden other comely growths, plain to that “other sense,” such as “faith, romance, the lore of old unhurried times.” These are infinitely well worth cultivating among the rest. They are an added joy in happy times and gently remedial when life seems warped and tired.

Nor is the fragrant garden ever wholly our own. It is, whether we will or no, common property. Over hedge or wall, and often far down the highway, it sends a greeting, not alone to us who have toiled for it, but to the passing stranger, the blind beggar, the child skipping to school, the tired woman on her way to work, the rich man, the careless youth. And who shall say that the gentle sweet airs for a moment enveloping them do not send each on his way touched in some manner, cheered, softened, filled with hope or renewed in vigor, arrested perhaps, in some devious course?

In mediaeval times there was a widespread belief in the efficacy of flower and leaf scents as cures or alleviations for all sorts of ills of the flesh, but more especially of the spirit, and as a protection against infection. This belief is testified to again and again in early horticultural and medical works. “If odours may worke satisfaction,” wrote Gerard, “they are so sovereign in plants and so comfortable that no confection of apothecaries can equall their excellent virtue.” In the Grete Herball it is written, “Against weyknesse of the brayne smel to Musk.” The scent of Basil was thought stimulating to the heart and “it taketh away melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad.” The fragrance of Sweet Marjoram was deemed remedial for those “given to over much sighing.” The scent of violets was thought an aid to digestion, and of Rosemary it was written, “Smell of it and it shall keep thee youngly.” “As for the garden of Mint,” wrote Pliny, “the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.” To smell of Wild Thyme was believed to raise the spirits (and does it not?) and the vital energies, while the odor of Garlic preserved those who partook of it or carried it about with them from infection.

Nor need we peer back into the dim past for corroboration. We all know persons who are affected for better or for worse by certain odours. A woman once told me that the smell of white Lilac revived her no matter how low she might feel in mind or body. My father was made actively ill by the scent of blossoming Ailanthus trees and he carried on a small but animated feud with a neighbor who had two in her garden and refused to part with them—quite unreasonably, thought my father. To me the smell of Clove Pinks is instantly reinvigorating, while that of Roses (the true old Rose scent such as is possessed by the lovely dark red Rose Étoile de Hollande) is invariably calming. Over and over again I have experienced the quieting influence of Rose scent upon a disturbed state of mind, feeling the troubled condition smoothing out before I realized that Roses were in the room, or near at hand. The soothing effects of Lavender preparations are well known, and certain flower odours have an opposite effect, causing headache or nausea, even to the point of catastrophe, especially in a close room.

Miss Rohde (“Old English Gardening Books”) quotes from the writings of a Dutchman who traveled in England in 1560. He wrote of the English people that “their chambers and parlours strawed over with sweet herbes refreshed mee; their nosegays finely intermingled with sundry sorts of fragraunte floures, in their bed-chambers and privy rooms, with comfortable smell cheered me up, and entirely delyghted all my senses.” Perhaps we do not realize that so fragile and subtle an influence as a pleasant fragrance in our living rooms and gardens has the power to cheer us up and delight all our senses. But it is true. “For smell often operates powerfully not only in surreptitiously enriching and invigorating the mental impression of an event but also in directing the flow of ideas into some particular channel independent of the will.” [“Aromatics and the Soul,” McKenzie.]

But the subject is full of indistinctness, for a perfume that is a delight to one individual may be a horror to another. Memory, imagination, sentiment, a weak or strong stomach, are inextricably involved in our reactions. But do not many of us know from experience that a chance whiff from a hayfield, a Pine grove, the wayside bramble, the sea, often changes the mood of a whole day? A very old man once told me that whenever he smelled freshly sawed wood he felt instantly young and vigorous for a time. His youth had been passed in a New England village where there was a large saw mill and the acrid odor of fresh-cut wood was so strongly associated in his mind with youth and its abounding energy that it affected him physically.

Of course some persons are far more sensitive to such influences than others. Some there are, sadly enough, who are partially, or totally, anosmic, or nose blind, and to these a whole world of sensation and experience is closed. But there is undoubtedly a close and intimate connection between the sense of smell and the nerve centers and it is probably not fully understood how far reaching and profound is the influence of odour upon our mental state and physical makeup. Montaigne wrote:

“Physicians might in mine opinion draw more use and good from odours than the doe. For myself have often perceived that according unto their strength and qualitie, they change and alter and move my spirits and worke strange effects in me which make approve the common saying that the invention of insense and perfumes, in churches, so ancient and so far dispersed throughout all nations and religions, had a special regard to rejoice, to comfort, to quicken, to rouse, and to purify the senses, so that we might be the apter and readier into contemplation.”

In early times living-rooms, banqueting halls, churches and police courts were strewn with sweet scented herbs and flowers to disguise the odours rising from filthy and unsanity conditions, and dandies and great ladies hung about their necks gold and silver filigree baubles filled with fragrant gums to preserve their delicate nostrils from the vile effluvia arising from the piles of garbage and filth rotting in the streets. To-day we are proud of our sanity conditions but are not our noses assaulted by almost as vile effluvia, the reek of gasoline and oil that pollutes the air of our cities and even rises triumphant above the delicate scents of the countryside? Perhaps it may again become fashionable to carry about with us little perforated balls of gold or silver filled with precious sweet smelling gums and resins to offset the unpleasant olfactory contacts that assail us. . . .

The gardens of my youth were fragrant gardens and it is their sweetness rather than their patterns or their furnishings that I now most clearly recall. My mother’s Rose garden in Maryland was famous in that countryside and in the nearby city, for many shared its bounty. In it grew the most fragrant Roses, not only great bushes of Provence, Damask and Gallica Roses, but a collection of the finest Teas and Noisettes of the day. Maréchel Niel, Lamarque and Glorie de Dijon climbed high on trellises against the stone of the old house and looked in at the second-story windows. I remember that some sort of much coveted distinction was conferred upon the child finding the first long golden bud of Maréchel Niel. Once a week, on Friday, a great hamper of freshly cut roses was loaded into the back of the “yellow wagon”—its physical aspect in no way bore out its sprightly name—and with “old Tom” in the driver’s seat we fared into the city and distributed to the sick, the sad and the disgruntled, great bunches of dewy fragrant roses. . . .

The Box bushes grew tall in my grandfather’s garden in Massachusetts, which has been little changed in outline for more than a hundred years. Their sharp scent seemed to bring about a special atmosphere of apartness and mystery, and when mingled with the simpler scents of herbs and the old time Roses, after a shower or an early frost, the odours of this lovely old garden would be raised to such a pitch of oriental richness that one felt transported straight out of green and white New England to the glamorous East. And to a small person creeping through the white gate to play, the usual game of young matron tidily keeping house beneath the Grape vine and competently managing a large family of dolls, seemed no longer fitting. Instead a distraught lady out of the Arabian Nights glided with lissome grace up and down the straight paths, a fantastic head dress of Hollyhocks masking pigtails, a Lily scepter in her hand. . . .

Why do garden makers of to-day so seldom deliberately plan for fragrance? Undoubtedly gardens of early times were sweeter than ours. The green enclosures of Elizabethan days evidently overflowed with fragrant flowers and the little beds in which they were confined were greatly edged with some sweet-leaved plant—Thyme, Germander, Lavender, Rosemary, cut to a formal line. The yellowed pages of ancient works on gardening seem to give off the scents of the beloved old favourites—Gilliflower, Stock, Sweet Rocket, Wallflower, white Violet. Fragrance, by the wise old gardeners of those days, was valued as much as if not more than other attributes. Bacon said immortal things about sweet scented flowers in his essay, “Of Gardens,” as well as in his less known curious old “Naturall Historie.” Theophrastus devoted a portion of his Inquiry Into Plants to odours, chiefly floral and leaf odours. Our books of to-day make sadly little of the subject.

Our great-grandmothers prized more highly than any other what they called their posy flowers, Moss Rose, Southernwood, Bergamot, Marigold, and the like. Indeed it would seem that save in that strangely tasteless period of the nineteenth century, when all grace departed from gardens and hard hued flowers were laid down upon the patient earth in lines and circles of crude color like Berlin wool-work, Geranium, Calceolaria, Lobelia, and again Geranium, Calceolaria, Lobelia, no period has been so unmindful of fragrance in the garden as this in which we are now living. We have juggled the Sweet Pea into the last word in hues and furbelows, and all but lost its sweetness; we have been careless of the Rose’s scent, and have made of the wistful Mignonette a stolid and inodorous wedge of vulgarity. We plan meticulously for color harmony and a sequence of bloom, but who goes deliberately about planning for a succession of sweet scents during every week of the growing year?

In England I have seen more than one scented garden. These were usually very charming and well carried out, a square or rectangular enclosure bound about with sweet-leaved briers, or a hedge of Box or Yew. Paved paths, the joints of which bulged with Thymes and low-growing Mints, separated the little beds in which grew all manner of plants with sweet scented flowers or leaves. And there was always a comfortable seat, for the English plan to sit and enjoy their gardens; they are seldom merely for interest or display. And a fragrant garden especially invites the sitter. One might quite happily make a gathering of fragrant plants on either side of a winding path. Here would be space for great bushes of Magnolias, Honeysuckles, Lilacs, Mock Oranges, bush Roses, all manner of sweet scented herbaceous plants and annuals, and along the verges broad patches of low-growing things, sweet Violets, Mignonette, Lily-of-the-Valley, Cowslips, Sweet Woodruff, with Clematis scrambling into the trees and other climbers supported on posts.

But interesting as collections always are to the collector and to those of like mind, it is more generally satisfactory to grow the sweet scented plants throughout the garden, as many as may be found room for, a precious leaven for the whole, and with special attention paid to those with sweet smelling leaves, for those are delightful for use in making nosegays.

A few agreeably scented foliage plants that should be grown in gardens for use in bouquets are the following:

Apple, Mint, Micromeria, Basil, Old Woman [Artemisia stelleriana] , Bay, Orange Mint, Bergamot, Rose, Geranium (tender), Cedronella triphylla (tender), Rosemary (tender), Lavender, Southernwood, Lemon Geranium (tender), Sweet Marjoram, Thymes, Lemon Verbena (tender)

For the most part fragrant flowers are light in colour or white. Brilliant flowers are seldom scented, though now and again there is an exception to prove the rule. There are more white scented flowers than any others and perhaps the purples and mauves come next. Some of the sweetest scented flowers are dull in colour, brownish or a sad purple. Flowers of thick texture are often heavily scented—the Magnolias for instance, Gardenias and those of the Citrus tribe. . . .

Gardens are sweetest when the air is mild and full of moisture. In periods of extreme drought and heat it will be noticeable that the fragrant ethers are appreciably lessened. Frosts, too, sets free latent fragrance, as does a shower of rain in many cases. . . .

Especially should small gardens, I think, be full of sweet scented flowers; it gives them a lovable intimate quality. And then if one thinks again, is it not just such endowment that a large garden has crying need of to make it more personal, more possessed, less aloof? One June 10, 1795, Horace Walpole wrote from Strawberry Hill, at “Eleven at Night”:

“I am just come out of the garden on the most oriental of all evenings, and from breathing odours beyond those of Araby. The Acacias, which the Arabians have the sense to worship, are covered with blossoms, the Honeysuckles dangle from every tree in festoons, the Seringas are thickets of sweets, and the new cut hay in the field tempers the balmy gales with simple freshness.”

Poets have ever known how to turn to gentle remedial things in times of stress, to draw from simple sources healing balms and assuagements. The scents of flowers and leaves are without doubt among the most potent sources of such alleviation. In Mary Webb’s lovely book, “Poems and the Spring of Joy,” she puts it beautifully:

“A thousand homely plants send out their oils and resins from the still places where they are in touch with vast forces, to heal men of their foulness. They link the places that humanity has made chokingly dusty with the life-giving airs of ambrosial meadows—bringing women’s heads round quickly and setting people smiling.”

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Excerpt from The Fragrant Path by Louise Beebe Wilder (1878-1938). Originally published in New York by The Macmillan Company, 1932. In American gardening literature, the period of the late twentieth century is seen as a time when writers on this continent came into their own. Wilder was at the forefront in this genre and is recognized as one of the best English writers on the subject. In addition to this seminal book on how plant fragrance brings an amazing dimension of richness into our gardens, Wilder also wrote nine other books, including Adventures with Hardy Bulbs, Colour in my Garden, Problems and Pleasures of a Rock Garden, and Adventures in a Suburban Garden

Photo By: Painting by Philippe Mercier (1744-1747), "The Sense of Smell," via Wikimedia Commons