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Scent and Non-Scents


“Stand back! I’m about to have a Proustian moment.

Wait…wait. Whew! It went away. For a second I thought I was going to become sick and depressed and this column would suddenly expand to about four hundred thousand pages that none of you would ever read except if you were in a hospital recuperating from two broken legs and I would start writing sentences that ran on and on and people would call me a genius but it wouldn’t matter because fewer than one person in a thousand would actually read this column but that wouldn’t matter either because the mere act of writing a four hundred thousand page gardening column would cause me to go insane and…and…

What’s that smell?

As Marcel Proust once wrote, or perhaps he didn’t and should have written somewhere in Remembrance of Things Past, is a few thousand words about the sense of smell and the average garden.

Take the simple hyacinth. For some, this is the epitome of a spring fragrance. I say slap a skull and crossbones warning label on hyacinth plants, if only to protect those people who think that taking it indoors is a good idea. If you can smell it a block away outdoors, it’s a clue that you’re flirting with asphyxiation if you bring it indoors.

Gardenias are pretty much in that same category. The good news about a gardenia plant, though, is that most of you in Zone 5 are never going to be able to keep it alive long enough for it to bloom anyway. Go ahead, try. You’re more likely to get your cat to read The Sunday Times aloud to you than ever see your gardenia bloom.

The rose is an example of how genetic engineering is also keeping us safe from the perils of “rampant perfumication.” It used to be that roses didn’t exactly die–they just weren’t exactly healthy. But we loved our black-spot-and-powdery-mildew-covered-stick with the solitary pink rose perched precariously on top because we sniffed it every time we passed the plant. Of course, along with the delicate fragrance we sucked up a fair amount of fungicides, pesticides and the odd, bewildered aphid.

Enter Modern Science! (Cue the cheesy techno music.) We have now bred our roses to withstand the onslaught of insects, diseases and the 24-hour news cycle…without chemicals! (More cheesy techno music.) I’m not going to name names, pretty much because I don’t have a lawyer on staff, but the new, improved roses give you perfect blooms, almost perfect leaves and not a whiff of fragrance. Now that’s progress.

Not only that, but from what I can tell–and I’m not exactly a scientist, nor do scientists want to be seen in the same room with me–these roses are actually capable of stealing scents from other plants. Meaning that if you have an exquisitely scented lily planted next to a new age rose, the only scent that the lily will emit is something that you’re likely to get from a stack of newspapers. For those of you who take offense because you wake up each morning, stagger out to your garage and inhale the strong fragrance of journalistic integrity, well, I don’t exactly apologize. Let’s just say I was misquoted. Journalists know what I’m talking about.

Garden scents even extend to the mulches we apply to our garden beds. There are many who relish the aroma of freshly-laid hardwood or bark mulch. I am, in fact, one of those people. However, I draw the line at those cocoa shell mulches that so many chocoholics use in their flower beds. It’s because…well, can I ask a question? Have any other gardeners awoken face down in a pile of cocoa mulch in their backyards? Can I see hands? No? Hmm. Okay. I withdraw the question.

Excuse me for a minute. I’m going online to see what my search engine says about Proust/cocoa mulch/psychosis. I’ll get back to you next issue.

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