Scents and Sensibility

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“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across
thousands of miles and all the years you have
lived.”

–Helen Keller

The sense of smell is both primitive and
powerful. Our ability to smell is estimated to be 10,000 times more
sensitive than taste, and we can detect a scent at extremely low
concentrations — a mere hint of a whiff is enough to catch our
attention. A scent travels chemical pathways to a section of the
brain called the limbic system, which is connected to memory and
emotion.

Whenever we inhale, scented molecules come drifting into our
noses. High in the nasal cavity they meet olfactory receptors,
which are long, thin cells that line the inner nose. These cells
have delicate hairs with nerve endings and are connected by nerve
fibers to the smell center, or olfactory bulb, in the brain. Every
breath we take passes over these olfactory receptors, and when we
breathe deeply, they surge into action, firing off messages. Unlike
other sense organs, the nose sends its information directly to the
brain.

Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses
(Vintage Books, 1990), describes the limbic system as “a
mysterious, ancient and intensely emotional section of our brain in
which we feel, lust and invent.”

Some fragrances cause the limbic system to gear up the glands to
stimulate hormone production, which controls sex and appetite as
well as other bodily activities. Among insects and animals
throughout nature, scenting ability conveys basic information
related to survival in a primitive world — such as recognizing
friend from foe and signaling sexual readiness.

And among garden plants, fragrance plays its role in the
biological dance, attracting pollinators, repelling predators and
advertising for the flower its fertility, availability and the
certain lure of nectar within. Scent seems intertwined with basic
urges and biological evolution throughout the natural world. Though
a happy coincidence, the enjoyment we humans gain from the
fragrance of an herb garden on a warm afternoon is irrelevant to
the flowers.

THE SCENT SOURCE

“A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it
triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit
them.”

–Diane Ackerman

In order for any substance to emit a fragrance, it must be
volatile enough to be carried off on an air current. In flowers,
leaves, branches, seeds, bark and even roots, the source of the
fragrance is the essential oil, which evaporates and disperses in
the warm air. An herb leaf, under the extreme close-up of an
electron microscope, shows bulging sacs of oil on the surface,
while some of the oil sacs have broken open and spilled their load
to the air.

More than 3,000 different oils have been identified from at
least 87 families of plants, so there’s no question that any garden
is a fragrance hub. This array is not more than the average nose
can handle; humans are capable of detecting 10,000 different
scents.

We can use these natural scents in so many ways, beyond the
enjoyment of the moment. The physiological effects of fragrance can
help us energize or relax, ease stress and anxiety, improve
concentration, even ease headaches or give us sweet dreams.

Fragrance also makes a major contribution to the taste of food,
as much of what you think you taste you actually smell. The
thousands of taste buds in your mouth can detect only sweet, sour,
salty and bitter, leaving it to the nose to pick up every other
nuance in food’s rainbow of flavor. Aroma is a big part of what
makes the flavor of many foods so distinctive. That’s why when you
have a cold or a congested nose, you tend to lose your appetite;
food doesn’t taste as good if you can’t enjoy the aroma that comes
with it.

THE ESSENTIAL TRIGGER

Our ability to smell is estimated to be 10,000 times
more sensitive than taste.

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands
of miles and all the years you have lived,” wrote Helen Keller, an
inspiring blind and deaf author.

Scent and memory are linked, and not only because of where they
connect in the brain. The strongest childhood memories are often
associated with smells, and memories triggered by fragrances often
feel more vivid and emotional than those influenced by sights,
sounds or tastes. Research has demonstrated that fragrance can
stimulate learning and retention.

“Unlike other senses, smell needs no interpreter,” Ackerman
writes. “The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought
or translation. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it
triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit
them.”

Perfume, Ackerman says, is “liquid memory.” The classic 1922
perfume, Chanel No. 5, has a synthetic base but draws many notes
and nuances from the plant world — including jasmine, rose, lily of
the valley, orris, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar and vanilla.

Individual reactions to any scent vary widely, perhaps because
of the power of scent memories, those associations and mental leaps
our brains make when we catch a familiar smell. And usually we
can’t say why a particular scent affects us. While our subtle,
precise noses may be able to distinguish thousands of odors, we
don’t have the ability or the language to describe all the scents
we know.

USING SCENT

The thousands of taste buds in your mouth can detect
only sweet, sour, salty and bitter, leaving it to the nose to pick
up every other nuance in food’s rainbow of flavor.

Bringing a garden fragrance indoors instead of buying it bottled
creates a scent that is utterly personal (see story on Page 26 for
recipes). Herb gardeners with a crafty side have a marvelous array
of traditional fragrance crafts to try their hands at, from
potpourris and wreaths to scented candles, herbal soaps and infused
massage oils. But for those who don’t have the time or the
inclination for a craft project, there’s a simple way to use herbs
from your garden to fill up your house with penetrating fragrance:
Simmer them.

Herbs and spices in a simmering potpourri release their aromatic
oils quickly when set on the back of the stovetop at a slow simmer,
generating enough fragrance to waft through the house and scent the
air for a few hours. You can create veritable potpourris in your
stewpot with what you have on hand and what you prune from the
garden, without worry about fixatives or preservatives. It’s easy,
inexpensive, creative, interesting and so very fragrant.

The practical side of simmering potpourris is also appealing.
You can use up last year’s harvest of dried herbs, or the extra
greenery when you cut back herb garden plants in the fall or
spring, or whenever you have a handful left over from other
projects. Simmering is a good way to use up that dry potpourri
whose scent is starting to fade. After the plant material has
turned to mush and released all its aroma in the simmering water,
the contents of the pot can be dumped on the compost pile.

In dry climates or during the wintertime when houses are closed
up and heaters turned on, an occasional simmering potpourri will
add moisture to the air and make it more comfortable. Many herbs
have antiseptic qualities and actually will freshen the air in a
home; these include such fragrant favorites as lavender, rosemary,
mints, eucalyptus and thyme.

The following recipe is an example of a fragrance blend for the
stovetop that can create a scenario for romance. Other suggestions
follow for herbal ingredients that have other effects. You can make
a single simmering potpourri on the fly with what’s at hand. Or
when you find a blend you like, you can prepare a batch of any size
and store it in tins or jars until you’re ready to use it. The
simple craft of simmering potpourris cries out for a playful hand
and a touch of inventiveness.

SIMMERING ROMANCE

1/4 cup rose petals, any color
2 teaspoons lavender flowers
Peel of 1/2 orange
1 teaspoon allspice berries

Use stainless steel or glass containers for potpourri
ingredients, as plastic or aluminum can affect the scent. You can
use as much of the plant material as you want, but the amounts
shown here are suitable for a single simmering in about 1 quart of
water. Put the pan of water on the stovetop (or in a warming dish)
and heat until it reaches a simmer, with tiny bubbles rising to the
surface but not hot enough to boil. As fragrance fills the air,
keep your eye on it, replenishing the water as it evaporates so
that it doesn’t run dry.

TAKE NOTE

A most useful tool for the potpourri simmerer is a notebook.
Learning the scents of the individual plants, and the components
that contribute to the scent, is the first step to figuring out
your response and getting in touch with what the fragrance can do
for you. What does it remind you of ? A childhood memory, a person
who was dear to you, a special holiday, or other pleasurable
connotation? How does it make you feel? What words would you use to
describe that scent? Write them down.

Then you can start trying different plants to see how their
scents combine, and you can discern quickly how a hint of spiciness
can add an invigorating tingle to the floral quality of other
scents, what a bit of thyme or rosemary can add to the invigorating
coolness of a mint, how the tang of citrus can balance the
earthiness of other herbs. If two fragrances are similar, they will
tend to blend together; if one is too overpowering, it can mask the
other completely. Noting the ingredients you use and the
proportions, and evaluating the scents you produce, is invaluable
in terms of learning your fragrance preferences and being able to
reproduce the scent whenever you want. Your notebook becomes a
catalog of scents.

The ancient art of blending fragrances is very subjective, so
you can’t go wrong. When you sniff the air to judge a scent, empty
your mind and let it wash over you. Tap into your most primitive
powers, and mingle the scent with the memories of your soul. Use it
to transport yourself to faraway places and happier times.

Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a
freelance writer and editor in Las Vegas, where she enjoys a
variety of scents and the art of making potpourri.