I don't think I have ever smelled that before...


I consider myself “quite recovered” from the total smell loss I experienced after a bad virus five years ago, nonetheless I still experience a lot of distortion. I rate my smell acuity at about 50%, but my threshold is fantastic. I can smell even very faint smells.

We were on holiday for a few days in a tiny cottage with a wild meadow on one side and an overgrown flower bed on the other. What used to be the flower bed has a very large buddleia which is in full bloom and full scent. As I walked around the cottage that morning I thought it would be interesting to pick up some plants that I did not know well and see if I could discover something new about my smell environment. What was interesting about this exercise is that I had no frame of reference for any of these examples here. I cannot recall ever smelling a buddleia when my sense of smell was intact. So my comments here about these objects have to draw on what I know now about my “new normal smells”. Roses, lilacs and sweet peas don't smell like they used to. Now they smell like “new roses”, “new lilacs” and “new sweet peas”. I have to use this new frame of reference to think about smells now.  If someone had said to me five years ago that one day all the new smells would be OK with me, I would have put my head down on the table and banged my fists, saying “NO NO NO! I want the old smells!!” But for me, this is ok now. It is not the same, but it is ok. Like someone who emigrates to a very distant land, I enjoy now the new vistas on the smell horizon.

I went out on my walk that morning and picked the following (roughly clockwise from top): ivy, soil (OK that's not a plant), bamboo (I think), hazel, montbretia, hydrangea, buddleia, some member of the wild carrot family, bracken/fern, meadowsweet, dock leaf. 

I brought them to my table in the shade, and took a quick snap--many looked like they would wilt quickly. Then I either tore them into little pieces or used some kitchen scissors to break the surface of the leaves and hopefully break the structure of the plant tissues and release whatever chemicals reside in the cells. Some things had much stronger smells than others. As a general rule, the drier the leaf (bracken, bamboo, montbretia), the less smell. “Juicy” plant material had a stronger scent.

My purpose was not just to see if I could smell things—though that is something I am always curious about—but to see if I could think hard enough about my experience to describe each smell.

Most cultures have a very limited vocabulary for describing and interpreting smell. Try to do it without relating one smell to another one. As in “hmm, this smells like oranges”. This is where perfumers, brewers, wine sommeliers, and others who work in the world of smell/taste have an advantage over those of us with untrained noses. So I thought I would try to challenge myself to come up with ways of describing my reaction to these plants. The comments I make draw on my “new” way of interpreting smells, though I am sure that I will also use my memory of smell too. 

1. Ivy. Well, if someone is looking for a new perfume ingredient, I hope they consider ivy. With the shiny and tough looking leaf, it doesn't look like a promising smelly. But crush them and sniff. The leaves are a bit juicy on the inside and smell soapy, clean, green and squeaky. The smell feels optimistic. It bustles like a recently qualified Edwardian nurse. Not fussy, or girly.

2. Soil (Not exactly a green thing, I know). Strong, mineral, wet, concrete, beetroot, rain.

3. Bamboo. Leaves very dry, and other than a faint plant-like smell, I can't say anything about it.

4. Hazel leaves. Quite faint, hay-like and sweet.

5. Montbretia. Very faint and all I can say is "a bit plant-like"

6. Hydrangea. Soft, milky, like boiled lettuce in milk. Not unpleasant. Subtle.

7. Buddleia. Sweet like a sweet shop, slightly sickly (maybe because so many blossoms were starting to go brown), the smell makes me think of something I really don't want to do, or maybe it is the smell of disappointment. 

8. Some-member-of-the-wild-carrot-family. I haven't tried to identify this, because there are lots of different ones and identification is difficult. Which is too bad, because I really really liked the smell of this plant. The seed heads smell like tangerine soap, with nutmeg. Yummy! The flowers smelled almond-y but also a bit like the formic acid smell of ants. The leaves had a sharp petrol-y smell, sort of like turpentine. Note: I think I used memory of previous smell here. My neighbour, who has a good sense of smell, did not agree with the tangerine soap characterisation, and found the smell unpleasant. 

9. Bracken/fern. Very dry leaves and almost no smell

10. Meadowsweet.  Pleasant, sweet, slightly custardy smell. 

11. Dock leaf. Sharp, medicinal and unpleasant

What is in your garden? How many things have you never smelled? I hope you will have a go at anything in your environment that you have never smelled before and give your recovering nose a chance to try.