Scented plants and memory

Posted: Monday 28 May 2012
by Adam Pasco

Memories are made of scent, and from now on, whenever I smell lilac, I will be taken back to my weekend at The Willow Festival [...]

Lilac flowers

The air was filled with more than music, as I walked along the River Nene, towards The Willow Festival at the weekend. Thousands of people, brought out by the sun to enjoy the bands at Peterborough's free music festival, were welcomed by one of nature's often unsung heroes – scent!

Large clumps of lilac along the embankment were at their best – deep purples and blues for the eye, almost assaulting my nose with intoxicating perfume.

Scent can take you off to another place, bringing back memories of another time, of people, gardens and childhood. Thinking back to my family garden at Semaphore Road, I can easily recall the smell of blackcurrant bushes, as I helped my grandmother pick off fat, swollen buds, caused by big bug mite, and the pungent smell of ground elder – our unwelcome garden invader.

There was fragrance from roses, peonies and large lilacs, and the characteristic smell of the potting shed. And mint, lots of mint, always available to pop in the pan of boiling water with new potatoes.

In my current garden I've about half a dozen pots of scented lilies on the patio, and one has just opened its first flower. There's lilac, of course, the powerfully fragranced Rosa 'The One & Only’, wisteria, herbs like lemon balm and coriander, and other shrubs with fragrant flowers like philadelphus and Choisya ternata.

In the greenhouse I'm building up a collection of scented-leaved pelargoniums (geraniums) and what a treat these are to work with. Rubbing a leaf gently between your fingers releases essential oils packed with scent, and this is where it gets interesting.

Some smell of oranges or lemons, while others smell of roses, nutmeg, ginger, pine or peppermint. I've even one that's almost good enough to eat, smelling of chocolate.

My favourite scented pelargoniums include:

Pelargonium crispum 'Variegatum' - upright, small variegated leaves, lemon scent.

Pelargonium tomentosum - grey-green velvety leaves with the scent of peppermints.

Pelargonium 'Lady Plymouth' - strong growing, variegated leaf, lavender-pink flower, citrus scent.

Pelargonium 'Attar of Roses' - vigorous plants with rose-scented leaves.

Pelargonium 'Chocolate Peppermint' - perfect for after-dinner enjoyment!

Memories are made of scent, and from now on, whenever I smell lilac, I will be taken back to my weekend at The Willow Festival, where I enjoyed watching my musician friends in bands like The Contrast, Ignition and Filthy Lucre, sharing their music for free.

Enter our competition to win a year of scented flowers from The Real Flower Company (closes noon, Thursday 28 June, 2012).

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Talkback: Scented plants and memory
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Marinelilium 28/05/2012 at 21:34

Carnations remind me of the warm embrace of my grandmother who always clouded her body in talcum.

Violets remind me of my mother and her passion for Parma Violet fondant chocolates. Roses because she soused herself in Joy perfume by Jean Patou.

Freesias remind me of my sister as we carried little white baskets of Freesias as her bridesmaids.

Mint reminds me of my father whose breath smelt minty when I was kissed goodbye at school gates.

Gorse reminds me of beach holidays, not because it grows in the sandy soil but because it smells of coconut and vanilla launch lotion.

Lilies just transport me -just like inhaling the head of a bathed baby , it makes you soar.

happymarion 29/05/2012 at 10:22

It.s only the scents that flowers have that entice me to pick a bunch for the house as they look so good in the garden and many are there as bee and butterfly food. But the kitchen has a huge posy of lily of the valley in it right now and my study has pink lavender and white phlox on the mantelpiece. I shall always remember the lovely smell of Ribes odorata now as that is what brought a lovely pair of visitors to the Bot, garden over to ask me what plant was giving off the wonderful smell and we found we had a mutual friend whom they had not seen since Oxford days. Smells are very, very, powerful.

donutsmrs 29/05/2012 at 18:16

Freesia always remind me of my mum. She really loved them and this year I have grown some in a pot in the greenhouse. Roses too are just the smell of summer. I have a lot of plants with scent, like happymarion for the bees and butterflies. But it is mostly Freesia, just to smell them and I close my eyes and my mum is here again.

Bookertoo 30/05/2012 at 11:51

I also love Lady Plymouth, for me she is one of the best. It is quite fascinating to rub a pelargonium leaf and not know quite what you will get! They were all labelled, but we are blessed with blackbirds, who seem to really enjoy removing labels, no matter what type I use. Some of the scented pelargoniums are just as beautiful, in their quieter way, as any of the showy hybrids we know and love. Scent is such a special thing, often used to help people regain their memories or to stimulate in dementia.

Alina W 30/05/2012 at 12:08

Pelargoniums remind me of my mother, she loved them. I also remember a large scented pelargonium that she had - it eventually went because the smell became too strong!

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