Put your nose deep into a bloom and inhale. You must admit that there is something essentially satisfying in that. Now put your nose deep into a bloom from a moment in your past. What memory comes rushing back?
Researchers think smell triggers specific memories because, when we come in contact with a certain scent, our brains recall the first time we encountered it. The smelling part of our brain also happens to live right next door to the remembering part of our brain. (Clearly, I majored in Literature, not in Biology). According to science editor Sarah Dowdey, “our olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the ‘emotional brain.’”
Whatever the anatomical reason, I took a walk down memory lane on Sunday when I visited the amazing conservatory at Longwood Gardens. The first thing I noticed when I climbed the stairs to enter this enormous greenhouse was the smell. It smelled like flowers and dirt and grass and water. It smelled, in other words, like spring. I think that part of what I’m missing during this season of snow covered gardens is the SMELL of things that grow.
As I strolled, I found myself turning my head, sticking my nose up into the air like a dog on the hunt, sniffing my way to lovely and familiar smells. The first was sweet alyssum, the diminutive white ground cover that’s a dead ringer for honey. I’ve planted it in my garden every year since I first encountered it at my sister-in-law’s house. I walked out her back door and was overwhelmed by the delicate honey smell. I started sniffing, and my nose led me down to my feet. I was standing on the source! She had planted the alyssum in between the stepping stones that lead to her garden. Every time someone tread on them, the smell shot on up. Brilliant. And beautiful.
Stargazer lilies took me immediately back to my wedding 17 years ago. My bridesmaids held them during the ceremony, and if you’ve ever been remotely near a stargazer, you know they are pungent. These always turn my head, er, I mean my nose, whenever I pass them by. I can’t remember which of my dear friends were at my wedding, but boy do I know what it smelled like.
The hybrid tea = Nana’s dining room table. My grandmother’s gardening tendencies ran towards a sweeping, weed-free lawn and foundation boxwoods, but boy could that woman grow roses. Her landscaper took care of everything else, but he never touched the rose garden. Legend has it that she braved the back yard once a week with her rose spray and fertilizer, immediately before her weekly trip to the beauty parlor. I guess if you’re only going to “do” your hair once a week, it’s best to tend to your chemical work just before hand. Whatever her methods, she always adorned her table with freshly cut roses. I smell a hybrid tea rose and I am at that dining room table, looking at Uncle Ben’s portrait, laughing with my cousins, and answering PawPaw’s questions about where I want my gravy. (On the turkey? On the biscuit? On the side?)
I wonder which of the flowers I grow in my garden will, in twenty years, make my children flash back to a particular moment. Moonflowers? Hyacinths? Lavender? Maybe it will be another garden smell that triggers the memory: mulch, freshly cut grass, a pile of dried leaves. Whatever it is, I hope the memory is of a happy time, and not of a crazed, dirt encrusted mother screaming, “Leave me alone! I’m gardening!”