Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Roses, noses and bathtime

It's wild rose time and the most fragrant British species by far is burnet rose Rosa pimpinellifolia. It has a strange distribution here in Country Durham - mostly coastal but with a few inland populations - perhaps because people planted it in their gardens in the past. This one was photographed at Durham Wildlife Trust's Low Barns Nature Reserve.

We live in an age dominated by visual images, especially on the internet, but wild flowers can engage all the senses, and especially the sense of smell. A few years ago I found this book -The Scented Wild Flowers of Britain by Roy Genders - in a second-hand bookshop and it opened up a new dimension in botanising. It's not just flowers that are scented - leaves and roots of many species also have their own distinctive aroma.

The problem is that having reached three score years and five my sense of smell isn't as acute as it once was - and the fragrance of  many species is quite subtle. Just sniffing the flower when its scent is diluted by the passing breeze isn't enough. So that's why I always carry ......

... a small, screw-top plastic tube. If you just put the flower (in this case red clover which has a delicious peppery sweetness) in this enclosed space for a few minutes the volatile fragrance is concentrated in a small volume of air and is very easy to detect. For leaves, crushing them before you put them in the tube releases the scent much more efficiently.

Fragrances famously stimulate the memory and recollection of past experiences. For me the scent of this plant, meadow rue Thalictrum flavum, brings back memories of bathing our children when they were babies, nearly forty years ago. Its flowers have a comforting, slightly antiseptic smell that mimics the fragrance of the brand of baby talcum powder that we used on them. These days I find it quite difficult to detect the smell of the flower in the open air but when I enclose it in the plastic tube for a minute or two it immediately becomes apparent.


  1. What a good idea. I know that my sense of smell is diminishing, just when I need it boosted.

  2. The platic bottle is a clever innovation_ I shall try it too. What you say about scents bringing back memories is true, the scent of Mysore jasmine brings back happy memories of childhood for me, and lifts up my spirits.

    1. I think that there's good clinical evidence that fragrances can have an effect on our wellbeing


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