Saturday, 9 June 2012

Perfectly Pungent Planting: A Gardeners' World Scent Special

The June issue of UK gardening magazine Gardener's World contains a 20-page, mauve-edged special supplement devoted to all things scent-related.  On the website is a slightly comma-rich preview: "Discover how to make the most of scented plants, which plants have the best fragrance, and how to improve your sense of smell. Plus, claim 36 sweetly perfumed lavender plants, for free."

Lavender is sweet?
The magazine includes some ‘scratch ‘n’ sniff’ scented paper circles, namely of the alleged sweetly perfumed lavender, of sweet violet (I shall reserve judgement on that ; - ) ), tomato leaf and a mystery scent.   Readers are invited to have a go at identifying the fragrant plant in question and to take part in an online survey.  Here they can record what they thought the mystery scent was, and their impressions of the 'scratch 'n' sniff' scents generally ie whether they were pleasant or not, how intensely they register to their nose, whether they smell familiar and so on. 
Well, in the case of the plant pictured on the cover my response is easy to predict - even before I have sniffed it:

"That lavender one is not sweet!"

This issue also features a Scent Wheel, which shows gardeners how to combine the natural scents of plants to best effect, creating a harmoniously fragrant garden.  Flowers and herbs are grouped into four main scent categories - Fresh, Sweet, Intense and Dry - each of which in turn has three further sub-categories.  I note with interest that according to this classification lavender is Dry!

Additionally, the Scent Special includes an article by Avery Gilbert on the science of smell and scent memories, and one by our own Lila Das Gupta  (journalist, keen gardener, and founder of Olfactory Events) about improving your sense of smell.  June gardens provide the perfect training ground apparently, as they are redolent with scents at this time of year.  Lila goes on to split plants into those with a “low odour yield” like grasses, and those with a “high odour yield” - or “pong per pound” : - ) - like lilies and jasmine.  She encourages readers to develop a wider scent vocabulary by just getting stuck in, basically:

“Learning to describe scent is a bit like learning a new language: those who do it best are the ones with the fewest inhibitions.”

So it sounds as though I am on the right track when I let rip and described S-Perfume's 100% Love as “a disconcerting blend of chocolate and Hoover dust”, or Dioressence as "embalming fluid", or when I likened LesNez's The Unicorn Spell to “a stick of celery peeping coyly through a freshly creosoted fence”.

Which brings me neatly to the last interesting feature of the Gardeners’ World scent special: an ICM poll on the topic of people’s sense of smell, commissioned in April amongst 2000+ respondents   Only a few of the poll findings may be found in the magazine itself, however I found more information in a press release from its publishers, Immediate Media, which has also been widely reported in the UK press.  So without further ado here are some of the highlights:

"Women appear to have a significantly better sense of smell than men - more women than men were able to recognise 14 out of 15 top garden scents. The list included rose, lilac, freshly cut grass and compost. Creosote [my italics] was the only smell as many men recognised as women."

Speaking for myself, in my recent herb garden challenge I was undoubtedly well below the standard of your average female - even a mostly non-gardening one, I suspect - but who knows if I would be any better with flowers instead of herbs?  I'd like to think so.  I might just see what I make of those scratch 'n' sniff things while I remember, though only one of them is a blind sniff, of course.
Lavender - Pointy Sprig Central, as expected.  Resoundingly not sweet.

Sweet violet - wowsa!  This is Parma Violet frenzy.

Tomato leaf - Memory of Kindness on steroids

Mystery scent - lovely heady floral of some kind with basenotes of magazine paper.  On my second sniffing attempt, I fear I may have cross-contaminated the sample with tomato leaf transferred from my finger - or possibly even the tip of my nose.  Trial aborted, but with my back to the wall I would say gardenia.

Going back to the survey findings, "more than 50% of pensioners could identify 11 or more of the 15 top garden scents, while a majority of 18-24 year olds could only recognise six".

I am not surprised to hear that - older people like gardening, while the nation’s youth are obviously locked away in their bedrooms, messing about on their PlayStations and Facebook.   And how do I know that fact about older people?  Well, one or two of the ads in the back of Gardeners' World magazine are quite telling, including this one for extra wide or swollen feet.

What else?  "Freesias are the nation’s favourite garden scent, liked by 92% of respondents, followed by strawberries (91%) and then sweet pea (90%)".

Hmm...might that help explain the rise of sweet, fruity perfumes in recent years?  In fairness, off the top of my head I would say that those particular notes are not all that common in the current crop of designer scents, though I distinctly recall that Gwen Stefani L.A.M.B has freesia and sweet pea, and a bunch of other sweet stuff besides - though curiously, not lavender...

And of course let's not forget the 3% of Britons for whom compost is their "sexiest garden smell!"

So that was all very interesting, but as for me, I am off to check out the slow-growing climber "trachelospermum jasminoides” – never mind its wonderful smell, the name alone sounds most promising.

Oh, and I think I shall give that "36 free lavender for every reader" offer a miss...the magazine's lavender-coloured edge was disturbing enough... ; - )

Photo of statue from Flickr CC via MyAngelG, photo of jasmine from Wikimedia Commons via Quadell, other images are photos I took of the June issue of Gardeners' World magazine.


  1. You're making me pine for a garden, Vanessa, especially as I *do* like lavender very much.

    I seem to recall that the Radio 4 programme Gardeners' Question Time was big on "trachelospermum jasminoides”: they were not ones for avoiding lengthy Latin names!

    Go on, you can tell us how the reader obtained their "free" plants: send in £x for Post and Packing, eh?

    cheerio, Anna the Cynic in Edinburgh

  2. Hi Anna the Cynic in Edinburgh!

    You are so right - just send £4.90 for P & P. Those lavender plants are heavy, right? I mean there are 36 of them, and they may have big clods of soil attached? As in really, really big sods... : - )

    I may need to check out Gardeners' Question Time at this rate, just to snigger at the Latin names. That one in particular.

  3. When/how will you know what that mistery scent was?

    I'm sure you'd have done much better with flowers than with herbs.

    Lavender isn't sweet! At least, I've never smelled anything sweet at all in any form of lavender - as a perfume, body lotion, shower gel, etc.

  4. Hi Undina,

    They haven't come flat out and said it, however, I just did the online scent survey reporting my impressions of the other three plants plus the mystery one, and there you are asked if you think the mystery scent most resembles:

    Lemon Verbena

    Which tells me it has to be jasmine!, one I did toy with tbh, also stephanotis. The odour of the magazine paper did seem to mingle with it more than with the other three, or that is my excuse, anyway! : - )

  5. Fun article. Nice to see Lila was part of it. I obviously need to shake my many inhibitions so I can describe scents better - I think that's a valid point. I can relate to the 3% with a thing for the smell of compost though, so maybe I'm on the right track!

  6. Hi tara,

    Yes, wasn't that fun about Lila? Actually, I remember her tweeting recently about being in on a beautiful hot day writing a gardening feature - maybe that was this?

    You like compost, hehe? Then I bet you are also a fan of TDC Rose Poivre and Iris Silver Mist (for soil scents generally), and PG Felanilla (for that slight hint of fermenting hay / silage). Oops - nearly wrote "sillage" there out of habit. : - )

  7. V, I do very much like Iris Silver Mist but I didn't get on with the salty cat fur of Felanilla. Don't know Rose Poivre, but maybe I should!

  8. Vanessa, I quite agree that you have few inhibitions when describing scents (and I love that Lila identified that as one of the keys to success in learning to describe them). I've never smelled The Unicorn Spell but your description of it as "a stick of celery peeping coyly through a freshly creosoted fence" makes me think that I must!!

  9. Hi tara,

    Felanilla is one of those "Marmite" scents, I agree.

    But I really think you might like Rose Poivre - it is clods of sod central!

  10. Hi Suzanne,

    Yes, I guess I am rarely "backwards in coming forwards" about my thoughts on a scent, though I do sometimes follow my mother's maxim of hanging fire altogether if I can't think of anything nice to say!

    Unicorn Spell was also very cold as I recall. I can only assume that the celery stick must have been standing in a glass of water before it decided to peek through the fence.

  11. this is why I shouldn't get out of touch with my blogging- this sounds wonderful and I'm going to try and get a copy on ebay asap!

  12. Hi Rose,

    If you have any probs getting hold of this back issue, come back to me, as I have hung on to my copy. As I am sadly not much of a gardener, you would be very welcome to it!

  13. The information shared is quite useful for the gardeners!!