The subjectivity of scent

mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)March 29, 2014

My favorite spring scent is hyacinth. Can't get enough of it. I have a pot of lovely dark purple ones right now which are joyfully perfuming the kitchen. Or so I thought...

Me: Doesn't it smell nice in here?
DH: It smells like dog sh*t.
Me: What are you talking about?! The dogs didn't sh*t in here.
DH: [indignantly] Yes they did. It stinks.
Me: Maybe you're smelling the flowers.
DH: No I'm not. Its the dogs.
Me: I think it's the flowers. Smell them.
DH: No its not.
Me: Smell them.
DH: [nose in hyacinths] Humph...


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linnea56(z5 IL)

I think they are wonderful! I do think men and women sense certain scents differently, though. My husband thinks lots of things smell like urine or poop. The poor cat gets blamed.

I grow a lot of lilies. He can't stand for me to bring any indoors. Says they smell like rot. Outside is ok, he doesn't mind them in the garden.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 3:41PM
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mxk3 - thanks for the best howl of laughter I've had in... oh, I can't remember when!

The earliest-blooming hyacinths I grow are of the grape variety and my knees don't care how they smell--it hurts too much to get down close enough to sniff them. The other hyacinths are planted far enough away from the house it never occurs to me they might have a noticeable scent, pleasant or more sh*t-like. It HAS been my experience that spring hyacinths are more about the welcome color after the drab shades of winter than the fragrance.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 7:11PM
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katob Z6ish, NE Pa

wow, I always thought of hyacinths as being one of those good scents up there with lilacs and roses! Funny how far off your perceptions are.
I can't smell heliotrope at all, I see it for sale, the label goes on and on about vanilla and "one of the best scents" but I can't smell a thing. I've even bought it a couple times thinking maybe it will come to me, but no luck.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 9:03PM
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wantonamara Z8 CenTex

I can't smell bad meat. I am always presenting questionable meat and broth to my husband to smell, and he will pass judgement. I can smell flowers fine and love them. He can't smell flowers unless it is a stinky Stapeliad but rotten meat is a go.. I think I got the better end of this bargain.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 10:53PM
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I absolutely love the smell of gardenias! Just one bloom floating in a bowl on the dining room table sweetens the entire house. Yet my hubby thinks they are sickening. This coming from the man that crunches the wayward palmetto bug (giant cockroach we have in Florida) and says it smells like peppermint :) gross! I won't get close enough to one to find out lol

    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 10:56PM
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gyr_falcon(Sunset 23 USDA 9)

Funny. I am another person that does not like certain flower scents. Right up there are the super sweets--hyacinths, lilacs, some zygo orchids. I would not consider them to smell like dog poo, but I cannot stand having them in the house! Fragrances I love include many of the scented cymbidiums, roses, Oncidium Sharry Baby, freesias, the white butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) and Michelia.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 2:37AM
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I have learned to see and sniff in person any plant which has a reputation for being scented before buying since for me some scented plants are unpleasant (daphne) and some trigger allergies (lilacs.) If I buy them anyway (DH loves lilacs and I love everything except the scent of Daphne 'Summer Ice') I plant them downwind of where I will spend time while they are in bloom.

The floral scents I like most tend to be roses and ones that are compared to vanilla like heliotrope and Nicotiana. I also enjoy culinary herbs and often plant them where I will brush against them to release scent from the foliage.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 8:32AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

hyacinth ... is glorious ...

because .. its usually in the front of the grocery store ... weeks before the snow melts and the ground thaws ...

and its an instant breath of spring... when i really need it ...

its so so in the garden ... since i would have to crawl on my belly to get down there to smell it.. lol ... the real downside being... if i cut them .. they will die in the house in a day or two ... yet if left on the plant ... will last a week or so ... it depends on how hot the furnace is keeping the house.. rather than the very cool outdoor temps at night ...

i planted a dozen or so 14 years ago on the walk to the back door ... and now there are triple that .... for a week.. that walk is highly perfumed for the week ...

not many of the bulbs i planted ... survived.. long term.. in my sand ... and i do not 'feed' my bulbs ... yet these have lived ... though i might not say thrived.. since my flowers.. glorious as they are... would not be called show quality.. but again... i am not really into the flower show.. as compared to the scent ...

i thought i recalled your SO ... is a chef ... i am surprised his trained nose.. would be so offended by this ... i would have thought.. he would use them in salads.. presuming they are edible.. and i have no idea ....

take a bud or two.. and put it over a salad with a vinegar based dressing.. and see if there is any sweet/sour intensity.. i have no clue... just an experiment ... AND DONT EAT THEM ... .. unless YOU research that out ... i dont have time to research it for you ... nor would i ever recommend eating things.. that is for personal research ...


    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 8:34AM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

You recalled correctly Ken.

He can't stand the scent of lillies either. BAH!

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 9:50AM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

LOL, wantonomara, you DEFINITELY got the better end of the bargain!

mxk, I'm surprised too at your DH's reaction - not so much that he disliked the smell (we all have our druthers) but that he thought it smelled like dog poop. That seems a bit of a stretch, but I may just be defensive as I LOVE the scent of hycinths!

Hyacinths smell absolutely GLORIOUS! I don't grow them, as I seem to have no luck with them, but I always buy some potted and in bloom from the local volunteer fire house Easter sale. One year my sister-in-law brought a big pot of fully-in-bloom hyacinths to MIL's house for Easter dinner, and as soon as SIL left MIL threw them on the back porch because she couldn't stand them any more! She said they smelled horrible. Huh? But guess who went home with a pot of hyacinths? (And a heavenly ride home it was, too!)

I don't care for some lilies - way too strong, some of them. DH loves our night-blooming jasmine, but it's too sweet for me.

We all agree on paperwhites, though. I was very disappointed the first year I grew them. It was so nice to have blooms indoors on long winter days.... but then we realized they smelled like burning rubber. Yuck. First and last year we grew those!

Hyacinths, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, roses, phlox.... Sigh....

Basil and marigolds too, but not quite in the same scent category, lol.

Fun thread!

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 10:29AM
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geoforce(z7a SE PA)

Scent is one of those things that are very subjective, and also depend a lot on your specific genes.

Personally, I think Hyacinths, and Gardenias are right up there with rotten meat and cow piles for nastiness. On the other hand, I find odor of skunks as not offensive at all.

On genetics, there are a lot of genes which create what are called "Selective Anosmia". One of the strangest ones is the inability to smell butyric acid. For non-chemists, that is the odor of sweaty socks, or decaying Paulownia leaves or rotting Ginko fruit. Really strong.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 1:22PM
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michey1st_gw Zone 7

To me, lilies smell like band-aids... BLECH!!!

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 3:32PM
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perennialfan273(zone 5)

You are all very lucky. My entire life I've never been able to smell flowers. I can smell food and all sorts of other things, but not flowers.

Still, I grow them for my family so they are able to enjoy these wonderful scents...

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 4:08PM
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wantonamara Z8 CenTex

Do certain smells make you feel like a perverbial dog looking for a pile of dung to roll in? That is what Mexican buckeye does to me I just want to find it and roll in it. It is almost a primal urge kind of thing. I smell it and I think of My old female dog giving herself up to that glorious pile and being so proud of herself.. I can't roll in dangling blossoms. Usually I smell it as I am walking in the woods and I can not even find the tree. So frustrating.

I like skunk in small doses. My small female cat likes to sleep with them, methinks because she comes in smelling skunk.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 6:26PM
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paul_(z5 MI)

Some scents do seem to be keyed to one or the other sex. Can't remember the source, but I remember reading that lavender is one such example. Most women enjoy that fragrance while most men don't care for it at all. I know I am typical in that regard.

Hyacinths are fine outside but not inside. The fragrance is too strong for me in a confined space and gives me a headache. The same is true of many floral fragrances for me. Roses? If the scent is very light or faint, I'm okay with it. Otherwise leave them outside and preferably downwind. I have had folks tell me that Narcissus have a very different smell outdoors than indoors. I've never tested that one. My personal observation with Hoya is that the flowers of some species do have a very different fragrance in the morning than they do in the evening. (I suspect in order to attract a different pollinator. )

On the subjectivity of fragrances' appeal, I have known a couple folks' here and there who rather like catching a light whiff of skunk, and I recall one young lady I knew who enjoyed the smell of gasoline. One of the most wide ranging descriptors I have ever heard for a flower's fragrance was that of a Bulbophylum ( a type of orchid) I once had. To my sis and I, it smelled of melon. To a guy I knew at work, it smelled like fish. Yet to another coworker (a woman) it didn't smell like either fish nor melon. She said it was an odd scent that she could not put her finger on but it was not unpleasant.

Of flower fragrances I do enjoy, there is a wild flower -- I do not know the name of -- often found in open fields. It's fragrance is reminiscent of alyssum to me -- a honey-like fragrance.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2014 at 1:27PM
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It's subjective, but objective, too. It seems that plants can adapt their fragrances to different situations and conditions, not to speak of season and time of day.

Here is a link that might be useful: Flowering plants are able to make flexible use of their scents

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 1:05AM
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I'm not sure how much variability in enjoying fragrances might be due to genes, and how much differences are keyed to how we were raised as children. If you're conditioned to think that certain fragrances are "off", or that new/unusual smells are suspect, you may carry that attitude into adult life.

There seem to be quite a few people who equate strong fragrance with "bad". This includes posters at GW who exclaim about supposedly being "overpowered" by the fragrance of gardenias or night jessamine (two of nature's most fabulous scents in my view).

I find all plant-related fragrances to be pleasant or at least interesting. This includes rotting meat/fish scents of Stapelias and Amorphophallus, the old sweat socks smell of Gynura bicolor blooms, the disinfectant-tinged odor of the flowers of a tall Oenothera that has naturalized in my garden and whatever fragrance Salvia foliage has to offer.

Those folks who wrinkle their noses and go "Ew!" at every different scent are missing out.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 8:59AM
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wantonamara Z8 CenTex

On the whole, most americans come from worlds that are extremely sanitized and fragrances are held at a restrained minimum. the tonal range is very narrow.

Much of the world fertilizes with fresh dung and washes their walls with grey water.Everything has a smell.Strong smells abound everywhere. People have well trained muscles in their noses. Strong oders are a common thing and one gets used to the passage of them.

I grew up in Thailand in the 50's. When I went back from this country to study in China ( '79) and I got off the plane and the onslaught of all the smells took me back to the feeling of safety in my nursery. It was very odd.I found it odd that flower fragrances competed well in this loud symphonic crescendo of organic smells. It is amazing how many smells one can smell at the same time.

By the time I left, I had taken the wide range of smells and shrank it and they all seemed not as loud. My mind had given them their allotted comfort range. They were not out of control. Smell is subjective.

I remember when I lived in New york state a long time ago, the farmers would take a years worth of dung and throw it onto of the snow on their fields.. AHH, the smell. I think that was the first smell of spring. Do they still do that?

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 11:18AM
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What you are saying rings very true to me, wantonamara, it wasn't that long ago that people of English descent thought garlic smelled awful, at least so I judge from comments dropped in the books I read (it seems unbelievable, now -- garlic is absolutely the best).

I also remember the pervasive smell of animal manure from when I was a child. When one went to a farm or when visiting overseas in southern Italy where goat droppings would be all over the streets. All those musty smells! And the dried fish! In the end, the brilliant sunshine cleansed everything, including the odors.

It is also true that the brain adjusts very quickly. Some smells (awful ones like cat piss) the brain goes blind to after a few minutes, or at least some people's brains do, which is a blessing for them.

These days we are overstimulated by noise and light pollution and probably under-stimulated by scent.

I am not sorry people use soap, however.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 1:14PM
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The sense of smell is directly connected to the sense of taste. If you loose the sense of taste, the sense of smell goes too. I believe what is perceived as a bad smell is a built in protection against eating poison, infected waste matter or rotten food.

Personally I like very hot foods, such as hot peppers but many do not. I also like vinegar, most anything that has been pickled & started asking around & discovered many people who like hot peppers also like the smell & taste of vinegar.

I wonder if the different ways people react to smells is based on their tongues & taste buds? Why do some like hot while others cannot take it?

The worst smell around here is the stockyards. It smells like burning fat & hides with rancid overtones that just smells greasy. I grew up in a refinery town & that smell never bothered me & still doesn't. Most people find it absolutely awful so maybe when you are exposed to a smell considered bad by most as a child, a bit of nostalgia or familiarity sets in?

The best smell was the time I went to Phoenix & the Orange Blossoms made the entire city smell like Jasmine tea. Of all the wide ranging odors I've run into that still wins #1 as the best I ever encountered. It did smell better than a refinery town, I must admit.

I like medicinal smells in plants and most woodsy smells like patchouli, a favorite. I hate any perfume with musk, the really sweet ones----some women nearly gag you with over doing it, the worst is to have someone come up & give you a hug then you're stuck smelling it the rest of the day. Thanks a lot.

This post was edited by TexasRanger10 on Tue, Apr 1, 14 at 14:25

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 2:22PM
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The science of smell is fascinating. I recall reading that there are taste receptors even in the stomach.

Strictly speaking, however, scientists now tell us there are only five tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, and umami. These we have from birth (and before) until we die. All the rest fall under the category of smell, of which one scientist recently proclaimed the human olfactory system can detect one trillion (if it is in working order).

Here is a link that might be useful: Human nose can detect more than 1 trillion smells, scientists discover

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 2:59PM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

Interesting conversation! I definitely think childhood exposure to certain smells has an impact, whether for good or bad. The smell of frying onions always reminds me wonderfully of my Slovak grandmother (although I can do without the smell of cabbage, thank you!). And I can still recall the scent of the shoemaker's shop down the street from the house I grew up in. Wow, I loved that smell. I was probably inhaling all kinds of toxins in there, but I always breathed deeply there, and often stopped to say hi to the shoemaker just to go in and smell the shop. And of course the smell of the small corner Italian grocery - a mix of cheese, salami, and sawdust. Yum.

While I agree Americans have become way too "sanitized", I won't say there aren't smells. They are just all fake smells. I've gotten away from using commercial cleaning products in my home, on my clothes, and on my body, and the smell of people's clothes, for instance, sometimes really bugs me. They don't smell bad, just strong - and fake. Nothing worse than to be out on a summer's day enjoying the garden, and to get a whiff of someone's dryer - i.e. their detergent and/or dryer sheets - wafting through the neighborhood. Well, I'm sure there ARE worse smells, lol, but that's always a bummer to me!


    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 4:42PM
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I don't really like the smell of lilies in most situations either. To me, lilies usually smell medicinal - specifically like Desitin skin cream. However, I did once attend a conference where they had some lilies in flower arrangements and it seemed like the number of lilies in a large room was just enough that it was a nice, interesting scent without being too much.

Paperwhites also smell bad and I am glad that I smelled some in a store before I ever tried to grow them.

Hyacinths and lilacs smell wonderful though!

Another flower that has a wonderful scent is the perennial swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. It has a vanilla fragrance that I love.

I also really enjoy the clove scent of dianthus. I feel like it is a waste to grow a dianthus unless it has a strong fragrance because the fragrance is the best part.

I am trying a large number of fragrant annuals for the first time this year and hope to find some other great scents.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 10:11AM
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gyr_falcon(Sunset 23 USDA 9)

The other day I built a bench patio with some extra blocks I needed to store. The marjoram on the opposite side of the walkway had sprawled a bit, and I kept crushing it with blocks and feet. The work was hard, but the scent was nice. :)

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 12:35PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Very interesting discussion.... Scent - and the perception on 'good' or 'bad' - certainly seems to be both highly individual and often situational/nostalgic. I love the scent of lilacs and Regal lilies - but mainly outdoors; both can be overwhelming indoors, especially in smaller spaces. But sometimes that powerful scent can be useful! Sixteen years ago I had some major surgery that left me rather befuddled for the first few weeks. I easily got disoriented/lost if I left my hospital room. My MIL knew I liked Regal lilies and sent me a bouquet of flowers that included them - no more getting lost! I could tell which way to go to get to my room by just stopping and sniffing the air for the scent of those lilies! :-) And the mention of manure above triggered nostalgia - but only if the manure in question belongs to horses! The scents when entering a horse barn/stable, especially on a cold day in winter, instantly conjures up the images and sensations from two cozy/comfort situations: myself as a child with my beloved maternal grandfather in the horse barn with two large, friendly draft horses; and myself in my thirties hanging out in the small (10 horse) stable where I kept Nutmeg! (A bit off-topic from gardening but scent covers a large territory!)

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 3:50PM
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