Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Odors of Vegetation by Wilson Flagg

Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Odors of Vegetation by Wilson Flagg

The beauty of a summer landscape is greatly enhanced by its alliance with the agreeable odors that constantly emanate from herbs and flowers; for the sight of a grove or woody pasture invariably suggests the idea of fragrance. The rising mists of the valley, tinged with the ruddy hues of dawn, derive interest from their relation to the fragrance of morning. And it may be remarked, on the other hand, that odors are indebted to other charming influences of nature for a great share of their own pleasantness. For nature has so combined all the objects of creation, that they are made to reflect a portion of their own light, beauty, and agreeableness upon each other.

The sense of smelling is not included by philosophers among the intellectual senses, like those of sight and hearing. It chiefly serves the purpose of directing animals to the right selection of the substances they use for food by their agreeable odors, and averting them from such as are noxious by those of an offensive character. This instinct is an unerring guide to the inferior animals among the simple productions of nature. But art is so ingenious in imparting the savor of any agreeable and wholesome substance to others which are injurious, that the sense of smell, even when assisted by taste, is an unsafe guide in the use of artificial preparations. Among natural productions, unmodified by art, the senses of smell and taste are safe guides to all fruits and other substances.

It is not my purpose, however, to discuss this point physiologically, but to treat of the odors of plants chiefly as the cause of agreeable sensations, and as a sort of picturesque attraction, when we are either rambling in the fields or employed in rural occupations. We perceive characteristic odors in every wood and meadow, by which we recognize their predominant trees, herbage, and shrubbery. Those of an oak wood are very remarkable, and not to be mistaken for any others. They are not aromatic; but they have a freshness more agreeable, perhaps, if we constantly breathed them, than a spicy fragrance. This odor is very similar to that of oak timber when cut and sawed; in one sense, a maritime savor, like that of a ship-yard. To a Briton it is probably a spice of royalty. It comes chiefly from the foliage after it has dropped from the trees; for the fresh green leaves seem to be scentless.

In wet grounds covered with alder, when it is in flower, a very agreeable essence is perceptible in the air; but I have not ascertained its source, whether it comes from the herbage or the shrubbery. It is probably the aroma of its tasselled flowers. I wonder that Darwin, in his"Loves of the Plants," never suggested the idea that the pollen of flowers is guided by these subtle essences to the bosom of its female, when wandering upon the winds. This delicate aroma, perceived when the alder is in flower, is displaced by the more penetrating odor of the azalea in July, and of the clethra in August. The fragrance of these shrubs, combined with that of the myrica and the cranberry-plant, forms the characteristic odor of low grounds, where no stagnant waters are present to mix with it any impurity. It is the primitive odor of the moorlands when covered with their native herbs.

As we leave the meadows and ramble near the hillside, where tbe native grapevines abound, we perceive another class of odors, still more agreeable, resembling the per
fume of mignonette, most perceptible when the vines are in flower. This is the true ambrosia of the gods, — the honey-scent of Mount Hybla. It seems as if nature had infused into the leaf or flower of all plants that bear an agreeable fruit some odor that shall be a reminder of its presence. The scent of the grapevine comes chiefly from its flowers, that of the strawberryplant from its foliage and fruit. Both leaf and flower of the same plant are seldom fragrant. The flower of the sweetbrier has very little scent compared with that of the common wild rose. The insect, whose services are so valuable to the species, needs not the odor of the flower if it can perceive that of the leaf.

The characteristic odors of the seasons come chiefly from flowers in the spring and early summer, from herbs and foliage in the latter summer, and from the ripened harvest and withered leaves in autumn. Winter is without odors, except those of the forest and seaside. The first aroma that pervades the atmosphere in spring is that of willows and poplars, which are very distinct; the former resembling that of lilacs, the latter more balsamic, and proceeding no less from the glutinous buds than from the flowers. Nature never seems so capricious as when she distributes her odors among the different species of vegetation. Why should the flowers of the elm and the maple be scentless, differing in this respect so notably from other spring flowers? Fragrance is denied them, perhaps as a superfluity, because they bloom aud fade before the insect tribes are abroad.

We are all familiar with the scent of flowering orchard trees. It is the incense that May diffuses over the landscape just before her departure. The blossom of linden-trees succeeds, and brings along with it a universal hum of insects, that seem intoxicated with its sweets. From this bloom the bee gathers the choicest honey* If the linden-tree had no other extraordinary merit, I should preserve it for its unrivalled sweetness. Its fragrant emanations are scattered abroad so widely that not an insect loses a message from its proffered feast of nectar; and the hum of the innumerable hosts of different species attracts our attention as one of the picturesque phenomena of the season.

The true seasonal fragrance of summer is that of newmown hay, for the air is filled with it during all the time of haymaking. This is indeed the "balm of a thousand flowers"; for though a greater part of the aroma comes from the leaves of clover and different kinds of grasses, the whole is the grateful result of many species with their flowers, when cut down by the scythe. Almost any combination of healthful herbs, when spread out to the sun and wind, after being mowed, will produce an aroma like that of new-mown hay. If you mix with these any considerable quantity of those noxious or innutritious herbs which are not acceptable to cattle, there comes from the mixture a rank herbaceous smell that indicates their presence. Nature is always true to the instincts of her creatures, and sets up no false allurements to tempt them to that which is unhealthful.

To the scent of new-mown hay succeeds that of the grain harvest, — the odor of ripened vegetation. We now mark the difference between the savor of herbs when they are cut down in blossom and after they have ripened their seeds. The odors of summer are more spicy or aromatic, and have more of an intoxicating quality, than those of the harvest. Nature has denied fragrance to the autumnal flowers, except a few that resemble the flowers of spring; such is the graceful neottia, breathing the odor of hyacinths, which is so obscure that it would be overlooked by the insects, amid the host of scentless flowers, if they were not guided by its perfume. Autumn indeed seems niggardly of her gifts to the honey-sipping insects, for the flowers of this season are as destitute of sweetness as of fragrance. The charms of autumn are chiefly for the eye, — of tinted woods and gorgeous flowers, that attract us more by their glowing profusion than by any particular beauty as individual objects.