It has been cold here since early December, at least cold for Atlanta. As usual, it has rained regularly, leading to many chilly, damp days. Looking out over the garden, everything has died, even the creeping Jenny—something that hasn’t happened for the last three years. The air alternates, one day crisp and biting, the next, wet and discouraging. The only discernible smells are those of last evening’s fireplaces and an occasional passing car.
We have a six-foot-tall gardenia bush in the front yard. Most of the time we’ve lived here, it has put out a few flowers per week each growing season. Less than I hoped for, but enough that, walking by, one occasionally catches a faint whiff in passing. One year, the bush exploded with hundreds of blossoms, and one could smell it from a half-block away. During bloom season, I usually cut one off—two would be too much—and place it in a small dish of water as an air freshener. I’m embarrassed to say that bouquets of Mother’s Day roses and that gardenia account for much of what little attention I have ever paid to fragrance until I started gardening.
Coneflowers were the first flowers chosen for the garden, and at the time, it was their beauty that endeared them to me. While planting them, a few had small blooms but very mild scents, so I paid little attention to how they smelled. It wasn’t until summer, when they were in full bloom, that I noticed their delicate perfume; it caught me by surprise. The fragrance is difficult to describe. It is subtle and a little spicy, as if a touch of cloves or nutmeg has been added. Unlike the gardenia, with which, using a single flower, one can easily saturate a room; coneflowers invite one to come close and slowly take in their offering.
Garden phlox debuts three weeks or more after coneflowers, so my next fragrance journey had to wait until those puffs of pink flowers opened. Phlox blossoms are as fragrant and as subtle as coneflowers. But to me, they have a slightly citrusy odor. Whenever I smell them, there is an urge to taste one while no one is looking.
After discovering what the phlox and coneflowers offer, naturally, I tried smelling every other plant in bloom. I was shocked to find black-eyed Susans, daisies, tickseed, and cannas had no scent. And I was just as surprised to find the foliage of black and blue saliva had a very pungent odor, not unlike fresh tobacco, catmint smelled minty, and bee balm had a soft, sweetish herbal smell.
That first year, after having anticipated bloom season for its beauty, I happily embraced it for its fragrance. From late May until October, standing on the porch, gently inhaling, one can see the garden perfectly well with closed eyes.
Looking out on this cold, gray January day, I miss my flowers. Like Proust biting into a madeleine and being engulfed in a torrent of images, I, going through my flower portraits, recall, with wonder, those fragrances.