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The fragrance of flowers offers a whole new world of pleasures. There is an intimate quality to a scented garden that beckons you in, insists that you linger, and, at times, draws you down to its level to breathe its enchanting perfumes. A seemingly insignificant thing such as a fragrant flower miraculously influences our thoughts, moods, and imagination, ultimately affecting our behavior. Perhaps this is why medieval gardeners believed the perfume of flowers was God's breath on earth.
Flower fragrance has always had the power to cheer me up, change my moods, and stir memories of other times and places. I notice this most when I wake up grumpy and head for the garden to escape the petty problems of the day ahead. Crawling around on all fours, weeding or planting, I am not actively seeking out a flower's perfume, yet as often as not a wonderful scent will find me. It taps me on the shoulder and subtly enters the quiet corners of my imagination, inspiring me to search for its source. When I find it, I often pluck the flower and place it in my buttonhole to carry the scent with me. How else could I move on to another part of the garden? I am a sorry sight: muddy knees, hair flung back and combed by dirty fingers, a fragrant flower just beneath my nose, and a smile on my face.
Intuitively I have always known that flower fragrances are tied closer to my heart than to the logic of my mind, yet I seldom admitted it, fearing I'd be thought a little daffy and much too sentimental. But I had to cheer when I discovered that scientists long ago established that women's noses are more sensitive than men's, and that in all humans our sense of smellis linked to the same area of the brain that controls mood and emotion. I was even more delighted when I learned that science now considers smell to be the most closely associated of all the senses to the part of the brain where memory is stored. This made me feel empowered and unstoppable in spreading the word about the value of scent.
Even before I had scientific proof of the power of flowers to cheer me up, I was instinctively drawn to their powers. When an unpleasant job awaits me, such as a long car ride or a journey into New York City on a day I'd rather spend in the garden, I always pick a fragrant flower to carry in my pocket or lay on the dashboard for my private pleasure. It invariably cheers and calms me. Usually I grab a few honeysuckle flowers, which I pass on the way out the front door. If it is Iily season, that's the choice one flower lasts out of water for three days, and the car carries the scent even longer. I'm hardly the first to have thought of this: the Adirondack Museum has an antique car with glass flower holders mounted on either side of the back seat. And, as is the way of all good things, they circle back: Volkswagen recently introduced a car with a flower vase on the dash.
Gardeners, of course, have always known that flowers make you feel better. John Gerard's Herbal of 1597 sets out the power of various flower and herb aromas in great detail. I used to think them laughably exaggerated, but now I'm not so sure. For example, the scent of basil, Gerard wrote, "taketh away melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad." He considered sweet marjoram to be a cure for those "given to over much sighing," and the fragrance of violets was supposed to stimulate the appetite.
Oddly, I've experienced some of these same sensations in the garden. Working among the herbs, I am often calmed by the blend of aromas although at times I am keenly aware that I am hungry. Smelling rosemary evokes grilled lamb, while sage reminds me of a chicken roasting in the oven. Cilantro is synonymous with salsa and evokes dreams of Mexican food.The effect of fragrances associated with food is easily understood. It is harder to analyze the moods and feelings evoked by fragrances unrelated to taste. Scientists may analyze patterns of behavior but each of us has our own personal experiences. The garden writer Wayne Winterrowd has told me how "the flowering of my grandmother's night-blooming cereus, which, in my part of the world, always grew in a pot on the front porch, was watched for, and stayed up for when it finally bloomed. (Whenever I see one of those plants, I still feel sleepy.) But intense flower fragrances always do make me feel faintly drowsy, and I wonder whether some part of the reason for this is that they have a soporific effect, quieting other, more jittery aspects of the mind, almost 'doping' the smeller. You'd have to ask the aromatherapists that. I only know what I felt; and it returns to me whenever I experience a gardenia or magnolia."
Heavily scented flowers affect me in almost the opposite way. My memories of gardenias are not from the plants but from the corsages we wore to church on Easter Sunday and to dances and proms and other social occasions. I always felt invigorated, ready to kick up my heels. In any case, scented flowers almost always lift spirits; they are my drugs of choice.A Garden of Fragrance. Copyright © by Suzy Bales. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.