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What is that smell?

An oriental lily blooms in the garden, creating an intensely sweet smell in the evening air. John Zvirovski / The Sun

What is that smell? Or should I say, what is that fragrance? There is a difference in the way we use words. Depending on our perceptions, words mean many different things. What is an aroma to some, might be an odor to another. What is a smell versus what is a scent can be the difference of pleasant versus obnoxious. We all encounter scents differently depending what our likes and dislikes may happen to be.

Since smell is one of our main senses, it makes sense to talk about it a little bit when it comes to the garden. So often we can generalize a scent into fresh or stale. Often a muggy day can give a stale scent, whereas a period after a good rainfall can give a fresh scent in the air.

Plants give all sorts of scents as they progress throughout the season also. It all depends on what stage they are at in the progression of growth.

Herbs can give a scent right away. If you brush their leaves, their flowers have a mild scent, and the complete aroma comes about when you rub or crush the leaves. The scent can be quite intense at that point.

Scent enters the air as soon as winter melts away and the spring air moves in. The freshness, the first spring flowers, the cool mornings and the plants awakening all enliven our senses. I would have to say, the scent of the wet, spring earth is what awakens me the most. If you don’t know what that scent is, go into a greenhouse right as things are getting planted, and you will recognize it right away.

Some of my memorable spring scents are that of the tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, peonies, lilacs and fruit trees. After the spring season has passed, summer arrives, and with it are the perennial plants of oriental lilies, roses, wisteria and monarda. Linden trees and Russian olives also produce a heady fragrance when their blooms are fully open. Often you can smell these trees from a distance without ever spotting the tree on a light breezy day. For annuals, there are the fragrant herb family, petunias, stocks, four o’clocks, Datura, marigolds and alyssum that fill the garden air. These scents are highly noticeable in the early mornings and late evenings when there is more humidity and less wind in the area.

The fall season brings a scent of its own. Some of the numerous chrysanthemums have a nice scent along with a few different aster varieties. I think the most prominent scent of fall is the dry leaves falling to the ground. This scent is especially noticeable when you walk on them and hear their crunch beneath your feet. Add a nice fall rain to it when the leaves are crushed, and you get an even more intense aroma.

When that season is finished, in roars winter with its crisp air and clean scent. Yes, many people can actually smell a snowfall when it begins. Call it an old wives’ tale, but I do believe even I can smell an impending snow system.

Of course, there are a few things in the garden that are not quite as appealing to many people either due to the intensity or it just plain smells bad. The stargazer lily can be one of them. I personally love the scent, but if cut and placed indoors, many people do not like it at all as it is too strong. It would be similar to an Easter lily that blooms indoors.

Over a decade ago I fell in love with a plant called the sea Holly. It had purple gray flowers with a spikey and unique flower that looked like no other. Since the one I got was a zone 5 plant, I didn’t think it would last long. Well, it grew well, and I had it in a protected spot by the screen porch in a cove for extra protection. The first year it just created vegetation, but the second year it created the flower stock, and I thought the flower was quite stellar. One day I was weeding near the plant, and given I had a dog at the time, I kept thinking I stepped in something. I would look at my shoes and the surroundings, but nothing but the scent remained. Finally I did the “beagle” thing and started to sniff around only to find out that the flower on the sea Holly smelled like doggie doo. Well, as pretty as it was, it didn’t last long as I didn’t want it near my screen porch, and the scent was more than I cared to endure in the garden, so out it went.

I will say for the most part, the smells in the garden are pleasant and quite appealing. Often when we plant in our gardens, we are planting items we have a special fondness to. Sometimes we experiment and find out that the flower is beautiful, but the scent is not quite as nice as we thought it would be. These are just some of the risks we take when trying something new.

Overall, sit back during the evening and take in all the scents of the season, regardless what that season may be, as they are all unique in their own way. Part of the enjoyment of the garden is the scents, sounds and visual panoramas that await us day in and day out.