4 Oct

Does anybody know of a garden designed primarily for appreciating scent? It is easy enough to have some scent in the garden, by growing herbs that have evergreen aromatic foliage. For instance, with lavender or thyme, anyone can have scent in the garden year-round. But how about growing plants in combination so as to blend their scents and produce living perfumes? Or, using scent to produce moods? Good gardeners can use their materials to great visual or tactile effect, but there seems little or no use of the perfumer’s art in gardens.

The thing is, it’s such a vague area. It’s very hard to categorise scent. Plants have their names, scents don’t; at least not in any scientific way. The challenge would stump a Linneaus. Catching a scent on the air and knowing what plant it is coming from is one thing; saying anything about it other than that it is either pleasant or unpleasant is difficult, and even that simple judgement is subjective.

Tuberose, which I adore, strikes one perfume reviewer as smelling of “rubber and rotting meat”. Rubber I can see (or rather smell) but rotting meat? Who knows where that came from. Likewise, the base notes of many fine perfumes have an affinity with urine, or sweat, or worse. Take the glandular secretions of the musk deer for instance. Another prized perfume ingredient is ambergris. Know what ambergris is? It’s . . . “a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of and regurgitated or defecated by sperm whales” (wikipedia). Nice.

It seems to me that of all the senses, smell is the one most open to different interpretations. Anything goes. You can see this is a book i’m re-reading at the moment. The author was a man named William Beckford.

William Beckford was, so says The Chap magazine, an “Eccentric 18th century recluse who built Britain’s greatest folly, Fonthill Abbey, which then collapsed due to medieval building techniques. Employed a dwarf dressed in gold to answer the doors, to make them seem even taller than their incredible height. Wrote English gothic masterpiece Vathek.” He could also be described as a pederast, slave owner and wastrel. Reading him could be compared to owning a second-hand fur coat: you know it’s wrong but you also know that it’s someone else’s fault, so you nudge the fault to one side and carry on regardless.

Anyway, you could regard scent as the preserve of those who don’t know what they want and want it now. It acts as a magnet for bad taste. Besides building his own palace of delights (which collapsed six times because he was a man in a hurry) Beckford wrote the protagonist of Vathek a series of five palaces, each one dedicated to the gratification of one of the senses. They are described with increasing histrionics and perfume is the preserve of the fourth. It ends in a garden, for light relief –

“The Palace of Perfumes,” which was termed likewise “The Incentive to Pleasure,” consisted of various halls, where the different perfumes which the earth produces were kept perpetually burning in censers of gold. Flambeaux and aromatic lamps were here lighted in open day. But the too powerful effects of this agreeable delirium might be avoided by descending into an immense garden, where an assemblage of every fragrant flower diffused through the air the purest odours.

Obviously this is like catnip to me, it being serious and silly. Getting back to plants, but staying thoroughly unrealistic, what would my Palace of Perfumes have in it?
-Cananga odorata. Ylang ylang. In my dreams.
-Jasminum officinale. Jasmine. I did have jasminum sambac but the supplier sent me a free sample of mealy bug with it. Try as I might I couldn’t eradicate the little bastards, so the whole thing ended up in the bin.
-Pogostemon cablin. Patchouli.
-Plumeria spp. Frangipani. Not likely.
-Hedychium coronarium. White butterfly lily. This is the most bewitching scent i’ve ever caught whiff of. In the Kew temperate greenhouse I was like a dog sniffing for a hidden bone. Utterly heavenly scent. I hear it is hardy outside here (zone 8a) but will only flower as a houseplant.
-Polianthes tuberosa. Tuberose. I have these. At least, I share custody with slugs and aphids.
-Brugmansia. A favourite of mine. Although the scent is rather sweet, this plant pumps it out copiously into the evening air. Plus, I love the apocryphal tale of it coaxing into madness those unwary enough to fall asleep under it, though I think that says more about the psychotropic effects of ingestion than it does about the scent itself.

-There’s plenty more to be had in Lia Leendertz’s The Twilight Garden.

Any other plant suggestions for inducing headaches or abandoning oneself to flights of fancy?

You know that alleged smell of rotting meat mentioned above, well I have an amorphophallus for that instead. William Beckford, you can keep your “purest odours” garden kitsch. It’s a free for all out there and i’m taking the plunge. Rotten flesh, deer glands, whale vomit, they can all be rendered beautiful. It’s just a matter of taste.

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