Unpleasant plant smells

Posted: Monday 4 June 2012
by James Alexander-Sinclair

[...] one man’s perfume is another man’s stench. My wife, for example, finds the smell of lilies so overpowering, as to be unbearable.

Flower of Dacunculus vulgaris

When we imagine summer gardens, what thoughts spring into our minds? Soft green leaves, light breezes, the clink of ice cubes? Or is it glorious colour and the gentle susurrations of a hundred bees?

And of course, there’s scent. The sweetness of lilies, the fruity overnotes of roses, the pepperiness of dianthus, or the sharpness of rosemary. It’s a vital part of every garden; some gardeners will not even countenance any scentless plant, although sometimes you have to compromise, for example, the candy-floss pink Rosa Bonica (trade name of the cultivar 'Meidomonac'), has no smell at all, but flowers until December. In this case it’s probably worth trading scent for longevity.

But there’s another side to scent - some things smell horrible. This aspect is particularly attractive to children, who like nothing better than finding really unpleasant smells.

A lot of this is subjective, and one man’s perfume is another man’s stench. My wife, for example, finds the smell of lilies so overpowering, as to be unbearable. I hate the smell of box hedges; admittedly you have to get quite close to the plant and squish some leaves, but you will get a distinct scent of cat’s pee if you do. It’s the same with the ornamental currant, Ribes sanguineum.

Geranium macrorrhizum, has a similarly astringent scent to its leaves. However, it’s a very useful edging plant for shady areas (there are white- and pink-flowered varieties). And the bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis smell very strongly of the skankiest fox - although some people who know about these things say it reminds them more of old elephant!

The Big Daddy of stinky plants grows in a glasshouse at Kew. The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is 3m high and consists of a sensational flower and one leaf. It flowers infrequently, but when it does, everybody within the glasshouse knows about it (when it flowered in 1926, the police had to be called to control the crowds).

A more modest version of the same thing is Dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon arum, which is hardy, and easy to grow in this country. I planted one of these in my mother’s garden, well away from the house (I am not that mean). The flower is spectacular, and is soon covered with flies that are drawn to its smell of old socks and rotting bacon. My children found it fascinating.

Oddly, my mother was not quite as captivated!

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Marinelilium 04/06/2012 at 12:17

I run the risk of hyperventilating when the garden blooms, inhaling until I am dizzy, but the smell of Crataegus blossom always makes me gurn!

Alina W 04/06/2012 at 12:23

And yet I love it.

Now lilies are a different matter  - completely overpowering and rank.

sotongeoff 04/06/2012 at 12:35

Yet I love the smell of lilies and the smell of my cordyline australis that is flowering at the moment.

Berghill 04/06/2012 at 16:08

My wife hates the scent of Sorbus flowers, I don't mind it, but it is a bit overpowering. Now I hate the smell of one of the weed dead nettles. Really gets to me when I pull them out. Also dislike the smell of Lemon scented herb thing whose name I foget.

auntie betty 04/06/2012 at 17:04

I hate the smell of most lilies, but love hawthorn blossom - just as well as my garden's full of them. Hubby says they smell of old cat wee to him.  I think hyacinths smell like bad air freshener and I also can't bear jasmine. Too pungent. But love fressias, and magnolias have the best fragrance ever. And cherry pie is great (forget the proper name). And pelargonium foliage. And ramsons. ...this is making me hungry!

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