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.