Monday, February 6, 2012


                                          … I’m glad

            I’m not that broken tree although
            it looks sublime. And glad I’m not
            taking a test and running out of time.
            What’s a tetrahedron anyway? What’s

            the sublime, 3,483 divided by 9,
            the tenth amendment, the ferryman’s name
            on the River Styx? We’re all missing
            more and more tricks, losing our grips,

            guilty of crimes we didn’t commit.
                                                from “Spring Reign” by Dean Young

            By nature, I am not a person keenly attuned to what’s going on around me. Although 15 years of living with hyper-aware Tim has increased my observational skills somewhat, the most incisive adjective describing my relationship to the outside world is “oblivious.” The opening poem snippet illustrates where I’m most comfortable, in the universe of printed words and ideas.  (If you read it aloud, you’ll hear the snazzy beat and internal rhymes and near-rhymes so dear to my word-play loving heart.)

Ol' four-eyes in 1964
            I suffer from some congenital sensual handicaps. I’ve been impressively myopic since third grade. (Remember that “Twilight Zone” episode where Burgess Meredith, sporting coke-bottle specs, plays the sole survivor of some kind of devastation? And he’s delighted because he’s in a library with all the time in the world to read without interruptions? But then he breaks his lenses, and the library becomes a hell full of books he can’t see. Even as a kid, I knew that was a bogus premise. Coke-bottle glasses are the lot of the seriously near-sighted: all he had to do was hold the books close to his nose. Rod Serling must have had 20/20 vision.) I also inherited my dad’s iffy hearing—iffy because, while I can hear the sound of voices, I can’t always distinguish individual words unless I’m looking at the speaker. The kindest thing you can say about my sense of taste is that it’s unrefined: never have been able to discern the difference between chicken and turkey. I’ll eat anything except rhubarb.
Fortunately, the nerve-endings in my skin still work, so I’m good in the touching department.

But smells… ah, smells. I smell well. Not as acutely as dogs, oenophiles, perfumiers or Tim, perhaps, but smells definitely ring bells in my brain. Olfactory scientists say smells trigger reliable memories more readily than any other sense. Lack of odor is a serious handicap, as the protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer can tell you. He is born without a smell of his own, precipitating a chain of events starting with his mother’s revulsion and rejection, to the realization that his odorlessness makes him de facto invisible, to a career as a master creator of perfumes (he could smell, he just didn’t have one of his own), to a life of crime manipulating others by wearing various scents he concocts, just to get even. (It doesn’t end well.) Absence of olfactory sensation is why I can’t warm up to electronic “books” and am completely averse to “socializing” by machine.

Amassing olfactory impressions counts as one of the greatest pleasures of gardening. I literally stick my nose into everything outside, or at least everything that holds still long enough. It doesn’t matter if it’s flower, foliage, fruit, seed, soil amendments, wood, roots or dirt, alive or dead; neither do I care what the season is. If it has a scent, I inhale it.

In order to demonstrate that I learned something from last time’s statistical workup (see the Jan. 30 post, “Tally-Ho”), what follows is a selection of pictures of plants that smell—or once smelled—in my garden.

Daphne odora ‘Marginata’—a powerful winter perfumer. Like Greta Garbo, this plant with a reputation for finickiness does best if you just leave it alone. I kept one in a pot on our deck for years just for the cold-weather orange-blossom fragrance, then passed it to our friend, Gen… who promptly set about drowning it. Tim rescued the poor defoliated thing and gave it to our part-time next-door neighbors, Tim and Carmen. They stuck it in the west-facing unirrigated ground between their front porch and driveway. With just rain and the occasional spilled soda, beer or sippy cup, it’s thriving. As you can see from the picture.

Osmanthus fragrans (tea olive)—this plant ekes out a living on the other side of Tim and Carmen’s front steps. The photo of the bush fairly represents how tea olive does in beachy environments.  But when its tiny, waxy, inconspicuous flowers open in late January, it doesn’t matter that the shrub is ugly. The potent aroma is reminiscent of gardenias.

Tea olive: what an ugly shrub
The tiny but powerful tea olive bloom

             Edgeworthia chysantha (paperbush)—although neither shrub nor flowers impress with their flamboyant beauty (my specimen’s blooms always look bit mildewed), starting in February, the fragrance does. On Brent and Becky Heath’s bulb farm in Gloucester, VA, there’s a venerable old plant that could be detected from almost anywhere on the property when we visited in mid-March. Ahhhh.

Wisteria sinensis—in the interval between late winter and it’s-really-spring, wisteria cranks up. The one in the picture doesn’t look like the one in the picture every year, flowering better if I whack it back in late summer. (Fertilizing wisteria is a no-no too: nitrogen just encourages foliage growth at the expense of bud-set.) And some years, the squirrels decide wisteria buds are their favorite food. But when it pops, the whole neighborhood knows it.

Narcissus ‘Sweetness’—like many other hybridized plants, daffs often sacrifice fragrance for size or vase-life. Not so much with the jonquils, tazettas and cyclamineus cultivars. You won’t “scense” them across the yard, but they reward up-close sniffing.


Rosa ‘Zéphrine Drouhin’—as with daffs, so also with roses. The old varieties (Zéphrine is a Bourbon) keep their rosy smells where newer, “improved” versions have them bred out. Knock Outs may be floriferous all season, but there’s no point in burying your nose in one, like there is with raspberry-scented Zéphrine.

              Trachelospermum jasminoides (Confederate jasmine)—the star-shaped flowers of this woody vine sited near the rear of our property sweeten our entire house as well as the near neighbors’ in May and June when the windows are open. When we pull in the driveway, its perfume greets us.


     Pittosporum tobira—this beach-hardy but deer-candy shrub offers a double scent-sation; not only do its May flowers spill the illusion of orange blossoms into the air, the woody branches and roots, when cut into, smell like apples. (F.Y.I.: mavens say the genus should be pronounced pih-TOSS-poor-um. I'm sticking with pit-oh-SPORE-um.)

   Ligustrum japonicum (Japanese privet)—Momma landscaped my childhood home with an overabundance of ligustrum. Those were the days before air-conditioning, so when the bushes started their month-long bloom in May, there was no escape from the overpowering smell. Consequently, my nose finds their fragrance sickly-sweet, although Tim—who grew up ligustrum-less—likes it. Folklore has it that they’re called privet because they were planted around privies, to mask the smell. Personally, I don’t know which odor is worse. 

Heliotropum arborescens (heliotrope)—this annual’s scent brings baby powder to my mind, although catalog-blurb writers describe it as vanilla. Either way, it’s memorable, in a good way. Heliotrope’s leaves will burn when exposed to strong sunlight, so plant it where it gets afternoon shade. The name, by the way, comes from the way the flowers turn their faces toward the sun, a phenomenon called, appropriately enough, “heliotropism.” (See “Let There Be Light,” from Mar. 20, 2011.)

Gardenia jasminoides—the fragrance of gardenias wafting over the garden following a heat-heavy afternoon says “summer” better than any other scent, except maybe new-mown grass. Or, if you grew up on graveled roads like I did, the sharp smell of hot tar.  

Lilium ‘Stargazer’—all of the mid-to-late-summer blooming Oriental-type lilies smell wonderfully sweet. Just remember to snip off the stamens if you’re bringing them in to put in a vase: the pollen permanently stains any fabric it comes in contact with.

            Elaeagnus pungens—“pungent” may be too pejorative an adjective for the unarguably potent citrusy, clean smell of the inconspicuous but abundant October flowers of eleagnus. When the gangly hedge at the back of our property blooms, the whole neighborhood benefits.


              Morella cerifera (wax myrtle)I love working around wax myrtle at any time of the year. Its foliage smells crisply fresh, and so do the wood, and the roots. Planting it, pruning it, just ruffling past it is an olfactory treat.


             Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary)—like with most herbs, crushing foliage between your fingers releases the scented oils that keep deer from grazing the plant. And your hands will smell nice for quite a while after. Don’t try this with garlic or other alliums, though: you’ll remind yourself of an Italian restaurant for hours.

            Viburnum suspensum (Sandankwa viburnum)—as a rule, Bambi avoids viburnums. Stick your nose close to a pale orange-ish flower cluster; crush a leathery, crinkled leaf; or prune a branch to get a whiff of creosote, and you’ll understand why. 

            Well, we’re up to 18 pictures and over 1,500 words, so I guess it’s about time to stop. Do try to get in the habit of mindfully engaging your nose in the garden. You won’t be sorry.

            Thanks for dropping by.