Fragrance plays a powerful role in the garden and in our lives, not only perfuming the present but also building memory links that may last one’s entire life. Almost 40 years later, I still recall the sweet, sulfurous funk of cabbage leaves that wafted up as I helped my daddy pluck cabbage loopers in the vegetable patch. I remember marigolds sprouted in a Dixie cup brought home from Brownies, their scent sharp and earthen as a forest floor, and the acrid smell of Salix leaves, which even now stops me in my tracks and leaves me feeling five-years-old limber, brave, and oh-so-tall as I shimmy into the safe scaffold of my backyard weeping willow. Did you expect me to name lilac, or lily, or rose? Surprisingly few of my first plant odors are sweet, yet I cherish their memories as I do my old brown teddy bear.
In fact, scents possess such power to summon the past that years ago I used to find myself working in my garden but suddenly being in Pennsylvania on my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm. At first I thought I was just looking forward to my annual visit, until one day it dawned on me that five o’clock was milking time on my neighbor’s farm. Essence of dairy barn drifted over the treetops, making me lonesome for a place I had visited every year since birth. (For those of you who can’t imagine being nostalgic about the smell of cows, it really is a pleasant scent. One part alfalfa hay to two parts cow flop, with a touch of warm milk thrown in. Think compost.)
The pungent odor of Polyanthes tuberosa, the old-fashioned tuberose, triggers a singularly bizarre childhood memory. Native to Mexico and once used in funeral bouquets (to try and rouse the dead, I suspect), even a single stem sends forth smothering waves of perfume best mixed with huge gulps of fresh air. The tuberose’s blast of cinnamon oil mingles with an indescribable sweetness, a delicious, insistent smell that spins me back to the 1960s, and a particular evening when my two young sisters and I chased the fog of DDT spewing from the mosquito-spray truck traversing our neighborhood. Three innocents imagining ourselves fairies dancing in the mist-silent spring, indeed.
The sticky candy aroma of Crinum xpowellii ‘Album’ makes me wistful for a youthful memory I can never quite conjure up, so deep is it buried. Vague images of my childhood Methodist church haunt my mind when I smell crinums, making me wonder if perhaps they grew there. But then so does the dark, cramped interior of Sessom’s Grocery, and a lime green hard candy they sold, grasshopper sticks. Did someone, a gardener herself, once manage to distill essence of crinum, making it into a candy sure to tantalize the taste buds of children? Was she hoping to make gardeners of us all later, we who might strive to recapture an instant of childhood by nestling our noses deep into the crinum’s candied heart? And most important, did she leave behind her recipe book?