Try this experiment at home with friends or family.
Cut three or more flowers. Place each flower inside a separate wineglass; no water or stem, just the bloom. Cover the glasses (cardboard coasters work great) and let them sit for at least 10 minutes.
Then, one at a time, slip off the lid, sink your nose deep into the glass and inhale.
What did you smell? That flower may have been a pink rose, but your nose pegged its scent as strawberry. A red sage smelled distinctly like pineapple. A white carnation spiced the air inside the glass with pepper and clove.
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With your smelling partners, compare notes from your noses. Likely, the subject blooms smelled differently to each tester.
Such is the magic and mystery of floral fragrance. No two noses smell them exactly the same.
“Smell is an individual phenomenon,” said Judy Eitzen, a longtime master gardener and 20-year volunteer at Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery. “Science doesn’t know exactly how our noses read odorants.”
With its massive collections of old garden roses, perennials and native plants, the city cemetery has plenty of flowery scents to smell. It’s one of the pleasures of visiting the cemetery’s gardens, which are open to visitors daily with guided tours most Saturdays.
Fragrance in flowers tends to be heaviest in the fall, Eitzen said. That’s another incentive to get out and smell some roses.
A good nose for flowers is an important asset for cemetery volunteers, Eitzen noted. Scent can help identify one plant variety from another, particularly among roses.
That comes in handy in the home garden, too. Sometimes, the best way to tell two red roses apart is to take a whiff. Some varieties have much stronger or distinctive scents.
Eitzen gave a recent demonstration on how to judge the fragrance in flowers, using wineglasses stuffed with roses. Capping the glasses concentrates the volatile compounds that give that flower its scent and ability to attract prospective pollinators.
Roses tend to have five distinctive scents: Classic tea (a light spicy clove), fruity (like citrus), old rose (a heavy rose perfume), myrrh (an ancient essential fragrance) and musk (another classic scent).
But that’s just for starters, Eitzen said. In this smell sample, roses smelled like green apple, berries, licorice, lemon, pine and eucalyptus – as well as old roses.
Even concentrated by a wineglass, some scents may be hard to pick up. It’s not your nose, but the rose, Eitzen said. After decades of breeding for bigger and showier flowers, these hybrid teas lost their fragrance, she said.
The most fragrant roses belong to these old rose species: Centifolia (the fat Victorian cabbage roses with 100 petals), Damask (the classic perfume rose) and Gallica (the French rose). Many examples of these roses are in the cemetery’s collection.
Most people can distinguish about 10,000 odorants, something that causes a smell, she explained. The part of our brain that deciphers those smells also processes memory and emotion.
“That’s why fragrances remind us of things,” Eitzen added. “Memory and fragrance take you where you’ve been.”
Throughout the garden, scent is making a comeback, she said. That’s led to the renewed popularity of old garden favorites such as those found in the cemetery. In addition, some hybridizers such as David Austin Roses are concentrating on breeding fragrance back into flowers.
“Use your nose and find fragrant favorites to put in your garden,” Eitzen said. “It’s well worth it. You’ll love it every time it blooms.”