Tazetta fragrance + flower fragrance in general

Antennaria@aol.com Antennaria@aol.com
Fri, 26 Dec 2003 15:11:20 PST
In the discussion of Paper Whites and the varying opinions on fragrance 
(whether it's a good fragrance or bad smell) no one mentioned an observation I've 
made regarding this plant.  I don't know much about the science of fragrance, 
but I'm of the opinion there might be several compounds at work in the "paper 
whites" fragrance.  The flowers are quite fragrant up close, consistently so.  
However, there is a peripheral range or "reach" to the scent, and it is at 
this periphery, about 10-12 feet away perhaps, where the scent is decidedly 
"stinky sweet" to "foul and unpleasant".

My theory is that whatever compounds make up the scent, they compose a 
pleasant if not overpowering sweet scent up close, but as one moves away from the 
scent, only some compounds within the scent reach out that far, leaving a 
stinky, unpleasant scent. Just a theory.  As one who is rather obsessed with scented 
flowers, I ask others around me (my family, or whomever else) for their 
opinion.  I have some consensus on this effect.  In fact, whenever I find paper 
whites in bloom, it is typically possibly to discern the acceptable sweetly 
scented zone and the stinky zone further away from the flowers.

Change in scent:
Many flowers change scent characteristics depending on period of anthesis.  
Example:  Narcissus 'Pipit" is one of my favorite late-flowering cultivars.  
For a photo of this, check out a gallery (mostly bulbs) on my webpage at:
or directly at:

The flowers are rather unpleasant at first... a stinky, somewhat rancid sweet 
smell, very much like the rancorous Paper White "peripheral zone aroma".  
Later on, at full floral anthesis, the flowers are enticely sweet.  Similarly, 
some flowers can be sweetly scented under ideal conditions (such as when fully 
open on a warm sunny day) and barely scented or not-so-nicely scented at other 
times of day.

Bradford Pears
I depart from bulbs briefly, with another example of fragrance vs. stench.  I 
find it amusing that the Bradford Pear, Callery Pear, or whatever you want to 
call it (Pyrus calleryana cultivars) has become so popular (overused) in the 
past couple decades, such that it's a compulsory component of street-tree 
plantings, parks, and yards... places where there are pedestrians at close hand.  
Yet, in these public pedestrian places, the mass of small white flowers emit a 
horrible stench akin to decaying carion for a period of 3-4 days.  Some 
varieties are more afflicted than others. The first spring that my trees of P. 
calleryana 'Chanticleer' bloomed, planted along the road in front of my house, I 
thought for sure some animal must have got hit by a car and was baking in the 
sun, causing the stench.  I searched around, with shovel in hand, until I 
realized it was the pear trees!  The flowers last about 2 weeks, and in the second 
week, the offensive odor wanes and a light fragrance can be detected.

Forms of the same plant can vary in fragrance/odor:
Mary Sue wrote:  "Ferraria crispa is known for its 
unpleasant smell, but the Ferraria crispa I grow that 
was once considered a subspecies (F. crispa nortierii) 
has no smell that I can tell."

I once grew two forms of Allium paniculatum, one collected from Macedonia, 
and another from another baltic region.  The two forms of A. paniculatum were 
virtually identical in appearance, except one was scentless, and the other had a 
bad, dung-like odor.  An English nurseryman likened the aroma to that of 
fried kidneys.  The point being, that we might be putting too much taxonomic 
importance on scent in some cases, and the same species can have odiferous and 
non-odiferous forms.

Bad smelling flowers:
Jane McGary wrote "Some flowers have an almost 
unclassifiable stench, like Ferraria, which I no longer 
grow for that reason, though I do keep a lot of 
Fritillaria agrestis on hand, even though it smells like 
dog droppings"

A couple of points here.  I have never understood why there is such adversity 
expressed about the fact Alliums have an onion-like smell when the leaves are 
bruised, as if that's something irrefutably repugnant. As Jane pointed out 
regarding the scent of other herbal plants; fennel, caroway, cilantro, etc., 
these scents can be delightful to some and repulsive to others.  I find that an 
"onion scent" to be just that... an onion scent, which is not in itself 
offensive, and is along the lines of a culinary scent that we all experience 
frequently enough.  But back to my point, it's a hand-me-down parroted theme in garden 
literature, particularly older literature, that Alliums stink.  In fact, they 
do not stink, only a relative handful of the 850 or so taxa have badly 
scented flowers, and the bulk of species have pleasantly sweet flowers, and 
including a number of intensely sweetly scented species.

On the other hand, Fritillarias have always enjoyed great popularity, and 
still do.  Yet most species are foul smelling, covering an impressive range of 
repulsive stenches. This characteristic has done little to dampen the enthusiasm 
of Frit purveyors and barely gets mentioned in literature.  I too love frits, 
but must refrain from smelling the flowers (although I do smell them, so that 
I can characterize the scent or stench as it might be).  The bulbs too, are 
typically skunky smelling, like Codonopsis and Tulbaghia.

Jane also implies, via the phrase "unclassifiable stench", that some plants 
embody unique scents that are difficult to quantify.  While I agree with this, 
I also find it interesting, that no matter how unique a scent might be, it is 
probable, if not VERY likely, that you'll meet up with a nearly identical 
scent elsewhere one day, emitting from an unrelated plant.  It leads mt to the 
conclusion, there are certain common chemical combinations that happen in the 
plant world.

Example: the drooping clusters of Pieris-like flowers of our beautiful native 
tree Oxydendron arboreum have a unique and unmistakeable scent of sweet baby 
powder (talcum).  While a distinct and unique scent, there are other plants in 
the world with this scent.  Photo gallery link:

Another highly ornamental tree, the Japanese Styrax (Styrax japonica) has 
flowers wafting a heacy scent that evades description.  A complex scent, in part 
exactly like the Oxydendron... a sweet baby powder aroma, yet with odd 
overtones reminiscent of powdery woman's make-up, like the scent at the cosmetics and 
fragrance counter at a department store, perfumed yet chemical-tainted and 
artificial.  The scent is indeed sweet, falling somewhere between pleasurable 
and mildly offensive.  It's one of the few plants that I haven't yet decided 
whether I like the smell or not, nor in this case, have I conclusively decided 
what it smells like. I'm still working on it.

Mary Sue wrote:  "Keys never list smells."
Mostly this is true, but not always.  Botanical keys and floras do mention 
the fact Allium perdulce is intensely fragrant, a rich spicy sweet scent like 
cloves or hyacinths.  In fact, it's species name references this characteristic. 
 Allium hyacinthoides (A. canadense var. hyacinthoides) is named for it's 
intense fragrance like that of hyacinths.  Allium elmendorfii, from Texas, is 
also reported to be richly perfumed like hyacinths. I find it interesting that 
several North American species, in the central and south-central states, have 
flowers with powerfully sweet perfumes.  There are two photos and a line drawing 
of Allium perdule on the "American Onions" page of the PBS wiki at:

In a recent taxonomic revision; "New Taxa in Allium L. subg. Melanocrommyum 
(Webb et Berth.) ROUY from Central Asia" by F.O. Khassanov & R.M. Fritsch, 
1994, a new subsection within the genus Allium is published; subsection Odoratae, 
separated on account of its species having flowers that are "intensely 
sweet-smelling like hyacinths, not faintly honey-like as most other Allium species".  
For photos and more information on two species in this section (Allium 
darwasicum and A. winklerianum), along with other richly perfumed melanocrommyum 
alliums such as A. woronowii, see my photo gallery at:
The 3 fragrant species of Allium mentioned above are also located on the PBS 
wiki at:

Happy sniffing,

Mark McDonough Pepperell, Massachusetts, United States 
antennaria@aol.com "New England" USDA Zone 5
>> web site under construction - http://www.plantbuzz.com/ <

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