As COVID-19 rages around the world, I'm grateful I'm healthy and can work from home. All around me in Seattle are people at high risk of infection, and many thousands who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet. One thing that helps me mute the distraught voices in my head and get through these long, lonely days at home (with two cats to "talk to" until my spouse gets home in the evening) is the great outdoors. And the outdoors in Seattle during spring is one glorious place, full of highly scented flowers emanating their perfumes into the cool, clean air. Today, I'd like to talk about some of the plants I've encountered on my walks and in my own garden during the last several weeks.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) One of my household's rites of spring is visiting the Joseph A. Witt winter garden (and many of the photos in this post were taken there). Among the first blooming flowers are witch hazels; seeing (and smelling) the orange, red, white and yellow flowers during frost, fog and cold drizzles is inspirational. The flowers, that many describe as looking like shredded coconut, produce a deluxe baby powder aroma.
Edgeworthia (Edgeworthia chrysanthia) The scent of Edgeworthia is a mix of magnolia and narcissus — with lots of baking spices. My devotion to this scent is real. Since Seattle is in a garden zone that barely accommodates Edgeworthia, our huge tree must be moved in and out of the garage during cold snaps. The intense scent travels through walls and up into the main house providing a Ghost of Spring effect on icy nights.
Rock Daphne (Daphne cneorum) My one and only English bulldog, The Hon. Brenda Catchpole, loved to sniff flowers. One year we noticed she always stopped before entering the house and buried her nose in a pot of fragrant rock daphne that we'd placed at the front door. Sometimes she'd start to barge into the house and then: stop. She'd back up, smell the rock daphne and then go inside, satisfied. Since that year, even after her death, we put a pot of daphne on our front porch. I discovered rock daphne with Brenda and think of her every time I smell it. The flowers (and plants) are tiny but make up for their size with vibrant pink color and by producing powerful perfume you'd expect from a tree. The scent of daphne is the scent of coming spring; it smells of strong cinnamon and clove, creamy and dreamy.
Viburnum (Viburnum Tinus ~ Pink Prelude) The pink here refers to the unopened buds of this plant, not the flowers (which are white and butter yellow). This particular plant's blossoms smelled of privet flowers mixed with dog fur. One of my favorite comfort smells can be sampled on the forehead of a clean dog. The hair smells of uncooked corn tortillas, dry and sweet grasses, brown sugar, with a dusting of fresh yeast. Since I no longer have a dog, these flowers' scent makes me nostalgic.
Magnolia Forrest's Pink (M. denudata x M. sprengeri) Spice cabinet (clove, cinnamon) meets lily (Lilium auratum) and medicated cold cream; this intensely perfumed flower also has hints of sweetened red wine as I smell it on the air. It's one of my favorite scents of spring. If a spring were to pass without me encountering one of these trees in full bloom, I'd feel cheated. (To ensure this never happens, see MY magnolia in the evergreen clematis "review" below.)
Red-Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) Native to the part of the world I live in, this plant has an amazing aroma. Life Savers used to make a pink grapefruit flavor in the Fancy Fruits Life Savers of days gone by. My grandmother always had a roll of these in her purse. The candy had tang, it had pizzazz, it had something a bit 'different' — something overripe, decadent. It smelled/tasted a bit like pink guava. That's what red-flowering currant blossoms smell like.The scent of the flowers is tropical, not "Pacific Northwest," and I've bought LOTS of these plants for my yard after enjoying them in the Washington Park Arboretum this spring. A plus: birds love the fruits.
Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) This plant is known by many names but the ones I like best are the corny ones: Kiss Me at the Gate and Sweet Breath of Spring (can't you just see the treacly Victorian illustrations for those names?) As with many of the most fragrant flowers of spring, the winter honeysuckle shrubs are nondescript most of the year; they're perfect for the "edges" and nooks and crannies of your garden (or you can create a neat hedge). Winter honeysuckle has a strong lemon aroma; it reminds me of Lemon Pledge or Santa Maria Novella Marescialla.
Evergreen Clematis (Clematis armandii) Evergreen clematis has climbed up a story and taken over a quarter of my second-floor deck. It provides months of glorious, highly scented blooms and a nice place for my cats to hide as they "bird watch" (ARGH!) As for the perfume: imagine the most lush, intense, indolic orange blossom you've ever encountered, scenting your entire yard and your neighbors' yards, too. Evergreen clematis also works as a cut flower (that lasts about three days in the house and pumps out perfume in the evenings). I always cut huge sprays of the flowers to adorn my Buddha statue from Thailand (I hope he appreciates the sultry, tropical fragrance).
Azara (Flacourtiaceae) A South American (with shiny, jade-colored, evergreen foliage) that produces tiny yellow flowers that smell like cocoa. During the weeks it's blooming in my side yard, the place smells more like a bakery than a homestead. Whenever I encounter it in public I always tell people around me to please smell the flowers. The tiny blooms look so insignificant but they pack a punch. I always love the shrieks of joy when people smell the flowers and exclaim: "Chocolate chip cookies!" "Cocoa Puffs!" "Cake!"
Santa Rosa Plum The first years I had my Santa Rosa plum trees, they'd always bloom in cold weather. I didn't trust the winds (or insects) to pollinate the blossoms so I'd climb on a ladder and hand pollinate the trees myself, almost crashing to my death, or severe injury, on several occasions (the trees teeter on the edge of a wall with a 10 foot drop onto stone and concrete). Of course, the year I didn't bother to cross pollinate was the year of unprecedented bounty. The flowers smell of faint orange blossom mixed with dry straw...a quirky, but comforting, combination. And the plums? They're the juiciest, sweetest, most beautiful plums I've ever eaten.
Daffodil (Narcissus): The flowers shown in the photo came from a dry bucket at the grocery store so I have no idea what their official name/variety is. They have a "green grape"-pollen-mimosa scent. As I waited to buy them two women invaded my space with nutty comments: "You know you can use food coloring in the water to make fun blooms!" and "They're like weeds! How much are those setting you back?" I love my classic YELLOW daffodils, thank you very much, and if daffodils were "weeds," I'd welcome every invader!
Hyacinth I used to work in a building next to the convention center that housed Seattle's yearly garden show. I'd ignore the piped in birdsong, ugly (overpriced) garden furniture, ghastly "garden sculptures" and cockamamie garden designs just to walk in the huge space and breathe in the heady scent of thousands of blooming hyacinths. If there's one scent that screams "spring" to me it's hyacinth, and I've grown them since I was a child. My grandmother and I would plant bulbs each autumn and wait for the flowers to come. Like many spring flowers, hyacinth smells better outdoors in a cool environment; there, you can enjoy its creamy, spicy liqueur scent (a drizzle of honey and camphor over heavily spiced gardenias and lilac). Once indoors, its scent degrades quickly, producing aromas that remind me of chicken feathers and caustic powders you might use to poison your rich husband or wife. No hyacinth perfume I've ever encountered comes close to the richness and vibrancy of the real flower.
Grape Hyacinth (Muscari) According to Wikipedia: "In ancient civilizations along the Levant, where they are called būlbūsīn, the bulbs of grape hyacinth (Muscari commutatum) were harvested and eaten either pickled or fresh." I wonder if I should taste a bulb...I have hundreds! Muscari have naturalized themselves in my yard and I pick them for cute little bouquets. At their freshest, they smell like a vintage French aftershave, almost a fougère, from long ago: there's citrus, moss, woodland floral (earthy, pungent, "cool").
Chinese Plum (Prunus mume) The Chinese plum is truly a friend in winter; its early blossoms give me the strength to get through the last of cold weather. There was a huge Chinese plum that I would visit in late winter at Kubota Garden here in Seattle. I visited that tree each year for at least 10 years. One year I showed up and it was gone. I felt bereft and remember looking around as if I could bring it back, or its huge form was somehow "hidden" from me but still alive. I wrote about this tree once at Now Smell This in relation to an incense I was reviewing. The description of the plum blossoms' scent still stands:
Every spring I visit an 'old friend' at Kubota Garden in Seattle: a stately Chinese plum tree. If I sit against its large trunk, I’m completely hidden from view by its flower-covered branches that touch the ground. The scent of the thousands of white plum blossoms changes over time. The tiny round unopened buds smell fresh and leafy with a whiff of rain. At their peak, the flowers diffuse a strange and lavish perfume with hints of honey, clove, old-fashioned bubblegum, wood smoke and masa. As the flowers fade and begin to fall, their last breath smells of delicate incense.
I hope you've enjoyed this mini-tour of my flowery world. Like Brenda Catchpole, do stop and smell the flowers! Go outside, sniff the world around you, and maybe even buy a bouquet or some plants for your garden or balcony. Here's hoping next spring will be a happier, healthier, more financially secure time for everyone around the world.
Note: All photography by the author. Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons: rock daphne next to Brenda Catchpole (Daphne cneorum by Pierre-Joseph Redouté); winter honeysuckle.
Lovely article, Kevin, thank you. We have friends in Bellevue, & although we haven’t seen them for a few years (we live in Aberdeen, Scotland) we would dearly like to visit them again once the world has returned to some sort of semblance of normality, so I have taken notes of the places you mention for our ‘research further & possibly visit’ list.
My husband was amused & curious about your late bulldog’s name – thought it was a marvellous name for a dog – how did it come about?
A propos of nothing, although my husband & I have been together for more than 30 years, my friend in Seattle I met when I was working on an oil related project here & my friend was on an expat secondment to the same project, so I have known him for even longer.
Carolyn: you’re welcome…and those gardens here are great.
We were watching a Merchant/Ivory movie and as the credits went by we saw the surname “Catchpole” and filed it away in our minds for a future dog. We always wanted an English bulldog and my spouse insisted on the name “Brenda.”
We are both from Virginia where state supreme court justices are referred to as “The Honorable”…and Brenda was VERY judgmental and firm in her opinions! Thus: The Honorable Brenda Catchpole. Her sobriquet was “Brendeen” (pronounced “Brawn-Dean.”) Ha!
Thank you for the explanation, Kevin – husband now even more amused!
What a wonderful wander through your scented gardens. Thank you so much!
I LOVE the scent of daphne! It is divine!
I remember the first time that I smelled it–
I was walking my mail route, and I had to go into someone’s yard to get to their front door. I opened their gate and was greeted with the most amazing fragrance!
What is that plant??!!, I asked.
Daphne, they replied.
I was smitten!
sunnlitt: yes, that scent travels FAR, doesn’t it? It gets “wet feet” here in the Pac NW so they don’t last long in the ground…thus the pots we buy each year.
Lovely, Kevin. Made me think about the Magnolia we had in our yard as children, the fragile lily of the valley, the smell of thawing earth. Thank you.
anngd, you’re welcome! Can’t wait till the lily of the valley blooms.
Everything is still dead and brown here in Montréal, thanks for sharing some spring flowers!
cazaubon: oh, no…hope April improves the landscape there.
A great article Kevin, I have a few of those but never go across our creek to sniff the witch hazel. I will have to go today.
Thank you for sharing and the inspiration.
AngelaB: yes, enjoy those witch hazels
I love the smell of azara. I have one outside my window and to me it smells of custard that has just caught a little in the pan, so slightly caramelised custard. The spring scent that surprised me a few years back when I was walking in our local historic cemetery came from flowers growing on a holly tree. I had never smelled them before and you have to be prepared to prickle your nose when you try…but its worth it. Again a bit vanilla, a bit powdery and sweet, like a mix of laurel and mimosa. It is autumn here but the air is filling with wonderful smells of fallen leaves, roses and rosehips, and always eucalyptus. Go well in Seattle. I used to work with a ‘ Catchpole’, great woman. I think the name is not uncommon here (NZ).
Kanuka: interesting! I had never heard that name before. I’ll look for a holly tree in flower; I don’t think they’re popular with gardeners here.
Holly was often planted as hedges and stock fences here, by the early Europeans . Gorse (furze) was another stock fence. Poplar trees marked river fords as they are visible from a long way. Some holy hedges are now very tall because they are so old…around our botanic gardens , for example. But old graveyards are the hotspot for holly trees in my experience.
Kanuka: now that you mention it, I DO remember lots of holly trees in graveyards all over the South.
Lovely ariticle kevin and lovely photography:) What do ya shoot with? A blossom here I like is Mtn Laurel, kinda smells like artificial grape flavoring. Love it. Like a grape Now and Later. I wanna sniff it all day lol. Hon is adorable btw:)
Omega: everything from an old Canon SLR to usual iPad/iPhone and a tiny Minolta 35mm a friend gave me. Of course, Photoshop helps, too! Mountain Laurel is a great smelling flower.
Thank you for such a lovely article, I also enjoy sniffing my way around a garden. Not all of these plants are familiar to me, but I strongly associate spring bulbs with my childhood. It was always exciting to see the daffodils come into flower, and the grape hyacinths, which are often called matchheads here. My mother is still a keen gardener at 89.
Gaynor: “matchheads”…neat…may I ask where you live? I’ve never heard grape hyacinths called that before.
I’m in New Zealand, and it may even be a regional thing in the south of the South Island. I can’t find any reference to the name online, but I know it wasn’t just a family peculiarity
Many thanks for the gorgeous photos and article, Kevin!
Jalapeno: you’re most welcome!
Thank you so much for posting this! The gorgeous pictures and tantalizing descriptions are a very welcome escape from mud season in Maine. We do have snowdrops in bloom and daffodils beginning to break ground so there is some hope that spring will come at lat.
The best thing by far going on here is that it’s still maple syrup season. Some of the trees are breaking bud so that will put an end to it, but the trees that haven’t are yielding the kind of sap that boils up almost black. It’s intensely flavored and the best for baking. I think I remember that you like immortelle. This smells even better!
Kathryn: better than immortelle?????? I need to visit Maine this time of year.
Thank you, Kevin. This was a lovely and informative and uplifting post!
skalolazka: You’re welcome…think I’ll do a summer post as well. Smelling flowers IS therapeutic.
Like you, I am very thankful for my yard and the opportunity to spend time outside these days. I am so sad for those who live in apartments, especially the children. ?
Enjoy your outdoor time Kevin!
So happy that spring flowers will be coming soon❤️
And what a sweet story about your dog! And bittersweet memories too. Be well.
Thanks, Laura…healthy wishes to you, too.
I lived in FL for many years and New York before that. Gardenias, Magnolias, daffodils, narcissus, and hyacinth always remind me of spring. My father had a grand time planting out in our garden.
Given what’s happening in the world, I’m not wearing anything challenging. I’m too afraid it will remind me of this time in all our lives.
Smokey Toes: that’s a good tip…don’t wear a brand-new perfume during this troubled time or it may have that association.
Thank you for the article. In February, family friends and I went to Longwood Gardens and saw their witch hazel trees in bloom. I love witch hazel. I’ve mentioned here that we have winter honeysuckle blooming in the back yard. I have a Judd viburnum and a sweet bay magnolia. I’ll have to look into finding out more about the other plants you included in your post.
Neyronrose: you have lots of good smells around you. Longwood Gardens is great.
Kevin, thank you for sharing your world of spring flowers – exotic to this midwesterner! This is a lovely and much-needed read.
ringthing: you know, I’ve never been to the Midwest in spring now that I think about it…always in autumn or winter.
This was delightful – thank you for the article!
This article gave me great joy! Thank you.
icingroses: I’m glad and you’e welcome.
Thanks Kevin, I work at a botanic garden and the Edgeworthia chrysantha blooming always causes a stir among the staff. we are unfortunately closed to the public at the moment and it breaks my heart that I cannot share the spring flowers.
datura: that is sad that the garden is closed. Edgeworthia is so sensational. Take care, too.