Plants that evoke memories

by Kate Bradbury

It's curious how plants - particularly scented ones - can trigger memories.

Monarda flowerI recently visited the community orchard at Haggerston Park. It makes a lovely little wildlife sanctuary amidst the concrete of built-up Hackney: all fruit trees, wildflowers and long grass. It's also home to a few ornamental plants, including pot marigolds, cosmos and agastache.

Planted in one of the tree pits was some monarda, (commonly known as bee balm or bergamot). My partner hadn't seen these flowers before and the name was on the tip of my tongue. I smelled them to jog my memory and, instead of coming up with the name of the plant, I was instantly transported back to the kitchen of the house I grew up in. On red floor tiles just inside the pantry, next to bottles of squash and my mum's wine-making kit, was a brown ceramic vase containing dried flowers. Some of those flowers must have been monarda.

It's curious how plants – particularly scented ones – can trigger memories. I have an almost encyclopedic memory of everything that grew in the garden of my early years, even if I can't name it all. I can identify the smell of plants not known for their scent, such as broom (which grew next to the swing) and hypericum (planted next to the tree I used to climb).

Pheasant's eye daffodil, Narcissus poeticus recurvusSometimes I come across a plant I previously didn't know the name of, and, like the lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle, it fits into place, adding to the memory of the old garden. A few years ago I discovered pheasant's eye daffodil, Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus (pictured, left), which I'd last seen growing in a pot, aged four. Its scent would tell me when I'd found it, I told my colleague Kevin, as we walked round a daffodil display at a trade show. "Daffodils don't smell", he replied. But, as I found it and took in its scent, I was four again, on the damp, north-facing patio with these flowers that resemble dogs poking their heads out of car windows. (I've since tried to grow them and they annoy me – who wants a daffodil that flowers in May and only lasts a week?)

As well as spontaneously triggering memories, plants are often used to remind us of people or places. We plant them for those we have lost (red geraniums for my granny), or to remind us of a holiday or special place. Somehow plants surpass photos and souvenirs for triggering memories, perhaps because they don't fade or attract dust, but come back with renewed vigour each year. They serve as a living reminder of something, or someone, we have loved.

Which plants trigger your memories, and why?

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Gardeners' World Web User 12/08/2011 at 15:43

White heather reminds me of my childhood in Scotland - it's supposed to bring you luck. Like wise the seedheads of dock - we children used to strip them off the plant and put in matchboxes as "tea" in our pretend shops. Sweet William reminds me of my late husband - it was his favourite plant as they self seeded all over his mother's garden when nothing else would thrive. Red geraniums too, Kate, my father's last plant he cared for at 91 was a lovely red geranium. I love poetry and paintings so a lot of my plants are chosen for their names - roses called Shakespeare and John Betjemen (both red), another red one called Matisse. When I visit them their works come to mind. The whole of our world is wrapped up in flowers, Kate. Freesias, with their lovely smell bring back my wedding day - they adorned my prayer book. You are so lucky to have a good olfactory organ.

Gardeners' World Web User 12/08/2011 at 16:27

I always associate carnations with my paternal Grandfather, he grew then for his buttonhole. He was a proper gentleman. I also associate the smell of tomato plants with him as he used to grow them in his greenhouse. My maternal grandparents always grew geraniums on the entrance to my family's caravan park (Tree Tops Caravan Park, in North Wales). It’s the feel of the leaves and the fleshy stalks which takes back. Things have changed and our gardening team put in the most amazing display with over 15,000 bedding plants put out each year. It's funny how these things work

Gardeners' World Web User 13/08/2011 at 09:41

I've got several special flowers. When I was a child, we used to go to our family caravan in Anglesey and when we came back, the pinks were in full bloom as if to welcome us home - they smelled wonderful. Or the bluebells that my parents took with them from the family home to their retirement bungalow to remind them of the garden they had left behind. Or the beautifully upright delphiniums that I thought looked like little black rabbits' heads. Wonderful memories.

Gardeners' World Web User 13/08/2011 at 13:55

Every girl deserves a flower - that's what my grandmother believed. Rows of colorful pansies in the spring would line her garden on either side of her front door. I could see them from our window - they lived across the street from us growing up. She would pick a small bunch for me and wrap them in a damp paper towel, then "tin"foil - a fancy vase! I still smell their scent and see her face - beautiful!!

Gardeners' World Web User 14/08/2011 at 07:35

Ive got a beautiful Azalea, my mum loved it. Every time it is in bloom the scent just pours over the garden, she also loved Lily of The Valley. My dads favourite was Sweet William, but what reminds me of him is the smell of tomato plants, he always grew them in the greenhouse so he always came indoors smelling of them. Lovely Memories!!

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