Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Soapy Scent

Overcast and damp today, in the low 60s. After I came in for lunch it started to drizzle.

Before lunch, I went outside and did what I love most: I puttered. No plan, no list of chores, I just wandered around pulling weeds, pruning a bit, stomping on some weeds in the meadow.

As I contemplated what to do with the brown sticks of clethra on the spruce berm, I was vaguely aware of a soapy scent. It smelled like some guy nearby taking a shower, you know, a men's bodywash scent. Sharp, spicy, soapy.

I didn't really pay attention, but there it was again. Had I washed my gardening clothes in Jim's bath soap by mistake?

I wandered off, then came back to the berm and once again it stopped me. I could smell a very tangy soap smell.

It turns out it was the spicebush shrubs behind the berm. Lindera benzoin. I have known that you can crush the leaves and produce a spicy smell, but I had never smelled it so strong and compelling on the air. I had never before experienced it wafting about. That was a surprise.

Spicebush is not much to look at in summer, when it is just a large, rangy shrub with medium green leaves. In fall it drips with lemon lime color.

There are a couple other shrubs I grow that have a soapy smell.

Comptonia peregrina is a woody shrub with leaves that look like ferns. It's called sweetfern. If you just brush the leaves you get a fresh sudsy smell, and on a hot summer day it does fill the air. It's a sweeter smell than the spicebushes, not as sharp, with a hint of detergent.

Fragrant aster, Aster oblongifolius (symphyotrichon now) 'Raydon's Favorite' also has a soapy scent when you crush the leaves. It's a heavier smell, a fragrance that reminds me of something old fashioned. Here it is blooming in fall, but it's the foliage, not the flowers that smell.

They all smell like soap, but the spicebush is tangy and masculine, the sweetfern smells like kids scrubbed clean in the bath, and the fragrant aster smells like washed antique linens in an old lady's attic.

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