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Smell Of May

May 30, 2012

Tags: order, advantage, amine, animal, aroma, attar of rose, aurora, Austin - David (born 1926), baby, bearded iris, bee, birth, blooming, bordello, Bradford pear, brain, brothel, bush, business, cadaverine, California, camp, carnation, chemical, chestnut - edible, child, Christmas, cooking, corymb, dead body, depression, digging, DNA, emergency room, evolution, fall, February, fertility, flower, fragrance, garden, gathering, genetic, grub, helix, heritage, holiday, housing, hunger, impregnation, intercourse, June, learning, life-giving, linden, Mary Rose, May, Memorial Day, molecule, mother, Nature, odor, olfactory, papoose, peony, perfume, perishing, pink, plant, pong, pregnant, putrescine, Pyrus calleryana, reproduction, rhododendron, rhubarb, root, rose, scent, scientist, season, semen, September, sex, shelter, smell, smelling, snowball viburnum, sperm, spermidine, spermine, spring, summer, survival, strive, teaching, The Smell Of May, tree, viburnum, Viburnum dilatatum, wasp, whiff, Wikipedia, winter, wood

May makes me giddy. On Memorial Day we did a long walk, me with my nose up in the air all the while, sniffing. My idea is (no scientific proof – it’s just my private hunch) that if we are smelling flowers all spring and summer and fall, we prime our brains to get through winter without depression.

That statement exaggerates, but it contains a kernel of truth. I put my nose into any flower I encounter (careful not to be stung by wasps and bees because I had some unfortunate wasp encounters a few seasons ago, one of which landed me in the emergency room).

Roses are already blooming for a while, earlier than usual. My David Austin rose “Mary Rose” is the sweetest thing; the old attar of roses must have smelled thus. The peonies’ fragrance lies heavily over the yard; whites have a stronger fragrance than pink and red ones. Linden trees bloom in the summer they soil cars parked underneath with sticky sap but give off an addictive sweet odor: I can’t wait for it. Snowball viburnums fill May evenings with their perfumes sometimes so cloying, it reminds me of a bordello (even if I have only a vague idea about a real brothel). Bearded iris and rhododendron mostly have to make up in showiness what they lack in scent. The little carnations look modest when you look down on them, but their peppery aroma is bold and assertive.

One plant pong stands out though - the unmistaken whiff of human semen. Wow! It comes from Viburnum dilatatum. The viburnums are mostly known for the perfumy, showy snowballs, some faintly tinged with an aurora pink. Viburnum dilatatum however means business: This sturdy bush with white feathery corymbs gives off the plain smell of sex. Isn’t that what the flowers and the bees are all about? Impregnation, reproduction.

But – why would a plant use the human odor?

I don’t know the answer, and I also don’t know which chemicals produce this familiar scent – do you know? I used to think that it was the DNA (the helical molecule that transmits our genetic heritage). But a scientist who works with it, says DNA has no odor to speak of - and he should know. Wikipedia claims some amines like putrescine, spermine, spermidine and cadaverine are responsible for semen’s unmistakable odor. Spermine and spermidine sound just like it - but putrescine and cadaverine? Don’t they sound more like emanating from dead bodies than from the fluid that carries life-giving sperm?

Whatever chemicals are involved, I remember the same smell from rhubarb in bloom (which will happen in June in my garden), and from edible chestnut in the South. In California, people complain about the fragrance of a notorious tree, called Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) – but I have not sniffed it personally.

Why plants are doing this, namely using OUR fragrance? Dunno. All I can say that the fragrance talks to me – meeting me at a point I understand from experience. Ultimately, of course, it means that Nature uses the same molecules in plants, animals and humans. We are not extra or outside from Nature – we are part of her. Once a scent worked for her during evolution, she recycles it. In prehistoric times, spring was also for humans the time of be fertile and to become pregnant. Having a child born in late winter made sure that the mother got still some rest in the winter camp, but then could carry her small child around (in a papoose, for instance) when she went on her next spring duty: gathering fresh shoots from emerging plants, digging roots and grubs, gathering wood for cooking.

A baby born in February could learn walking during the next winter camp, and was ready to toddle behind with the next spring move. Does Nature with her scents conspire to make us want to have intercourse at a time expedient to give a child the best possible start? Nowadays, with sheltering housing and ample food all year round, these small advantages mean nothing anymore; during those years of hunger and strive, they might have made the difference between perishing and survival.

Nowadays, most babies are born in September, which has nothing to do anymore with survival advantage – only with what we did during last Christmas holidays. I have to say that I like the idea that Nature tries to nudge me into bed with someone – right now. Preferably my husband.
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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