Fragrance in the garden

Fragrance affects our memories of gardens.

Courtesy of Lois J. de Vries
What scents are in your favorite perfume: roses, narcissus, lavender, lilies, jasmine? Surround yourself with their fragrance by planting them in your garden. This fragrant rose is named Dick Clark.

I can't work with or smell roses, see a box turtle, or smell the combination of wet bricks and damp earth without thinking of my grandmother and her rose garden.

When she was no longer able to tend to the garden herself, she directed my grandfather's activities from an open kitchen window, from which she also called her half-dozen captive turtles to come get their snacks -- and they did!

As many people have discovered, scent is a major element that influences not only our garden memories, but also our current garden experiences. This happens, researchers say, because the capacities for both smell and emotion are rooted in the same system in the brain.

The average human being is able to distinguish approximately 10,000 different odors. But an odor has no personal significance until it becomes connected to something that has meaning to us, according to Brown University neuroscientist Rachel Herz. The olfactory center also interacts directly with the hippocampus, a brain area involved with the formation of new memories. “No other senses have this kind of deep access,” Dr. Herz says.

Fragrance can be positive or negative

“Scents can have positive effects on mood, stress reduction, sleep enhancement, self-confidence, and physical and cognitive performance,” according to Theresa Molnar, executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute, the research and development arm of the perfume industry’s Fragrance Foundation (Psychology Today, 11/01/2007).

But early associations with gardening can be negative as well as positive.

The garden next door to my grandmother’s had dense, impenetrable soil due to constant trampling and lack of maintenance. The sticky, smelly, slimy flowers of two large rose of sharon shrubs seemed to take forever to decompose as they lay atop the soil, creating a gooey mess that also smelled bad. It’s only many years later that I’ve begun to appreciate the beauty of rose of sharon.

Common scents in the garden

By becoming more aware of the way specific odors affect you personally, you can enrich your gardening experience. Start with your favorite flowers, seek out the floral components of your signature cologne or aftershave, examine the top notes of your preferences in incense, body wash, herb and spice mixes, etc.

And don't forget things such as the smell of fallen leaves, pine needles crushed underfoot, or "greenhouse smell," as well as such seeming oddities as cow or horse manure, chicken feed, sweet feed or oats for horses, alfalfa hay, and silage.

Each of these and other aromas can be worked into your garden, if only in a transitory way.

For more information on the interactions between the sense of smell and emotions, you can read The Social Issues Research Center's Smell Report by clicking here.

The Sense of Smell Institute's website explains the basics of how humans' sense of smell works, offers some fun facts, and provides lesson plans and classroom materials for teachers. .


Lois de Vries, a popular speaker at regional flower shows and garden clubs, writes from her home in rural northwestern New Jersey. To read her other posts at Diggin' It, click here. She's a field editor for Better Homes and Gardens and Country Gardens magazines and has been a contributing editor for other national publications. She was awarded the Jefferson Presidential Award for public service in environmental work. Click here and here to read about her garden design and environmental ideas and her holistic approach to gardening.You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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