A sweet savour

I would be the last person to belittle a flower because of its colour or appearance, but it does happen that my own favourites are those with their own distinctive fragrance.

The rose, of course, is a joy to all - even to my baby granddaughter, who enjoys taking one apart, petal by petal - but there are other, less spectacular blooms, which have a lovely and sometimes elusive fragrance all their own.

I have a special fondness for antirrhinums, or snapdragons, as they are more commonly known. If I sniff hard at them, I don't catch any scent at all. They seem to hold it back from me. But if I walk past a bed of these flowers, or even a single plant, the gentlest of fragrances is wafted to me, zephyr-like. And if I stop to try and take it all in, it has gone again! I find this quite tantalising, but it has given me a special regard for this modest flower.

Carnations, with their strong scent of cloves, are great showoffs. And here, in India, the jasmine can be rather heady and overpowering. The honeysuckle, too , insists on making its presence known. There is a honeysuckle creeper outside the study window of my cottage in the hills, and all through the summer its sweet, rather cloying fragrance drifts in through the open window. It is delightful at times; but at other times I have to close the window just so that I can give my attention to other, less intrusive, smells - like the soft scent of petunias (another of my favourites) near the doorstep, and pine needles on the hillside, and great bunches of sweet peas placed on my table.

Some flowers can be quite tricky. One would think that the calendula had no scent at all. Certainly the flower gives nothing away. But run your fingers gently over the leaves and then bring them to your face, and you will be touched - just briefly - by the most delicate of aromas.

Sometimes leaves outdo their blooms. The lemon geranium, for instance, is valued more for its fragrant leaves than for its rather indeterminate flowers. It is the same with verbena. And I cannot truthfully say what ordinary mint looks like in flower. The refreshing aroma of its leaves, when crushed, makes up for any absence of floral display.

Not all plants are fragrant. Some, like the asafoetida, will keep strong men at bay. Of course, one man's fragrance might well turn out to be another creature's bad smell. Geraniums, my grandmother insisted, kept snakes away because they couldn't stand the smell of these flowers. She surrounded her north Indian bungalow with pots of geraniums. It's true we never found a snake in the house, so she may have been right!

But snakes must like some smells, close to the ground, or by now they'd have taken to living in more elevated places; but I am told their sense of smell is rather dull. When I lie on summer grass in the Himalayas, I am conscious of the many good smells around me - the grass itself, redolent of the morning's dew; bruised clover; wild violets; tiny buttercups and golden stars and strawberry flowers and many I shall never know the names of. . . .

And the earth itself. It smells differently in different places. But its loveliest fragrance is known only when it receives a shower of rain. And then the scent of the wet earth rises as though it would give something beautiful back to the clouds - a blend of all the fragrant things that grow in it.

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