All week, the street air is drunk on basswood flowers
May 3, 2021 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Eleven Ways Of Smelling A Tree: David Haskell invites us into the unique and sometimes surprising aromas of eleven different species of trees (Emergence Magazine) - "I kneel at the pile of fresh wood chips and scoop a double handful to my nose. A wet-green aroma: chopped lettuce and asparagus, backed by a whisper of tannin. Four hours ago, an ash tree stood here. Now, its trunk and limbs are gone, hauled off by the arborist’s crew. A stump grinder’s spinning maw turned the trunk’s base and the upper roots into a heap of pulverized sawdust. A circle of golden leaves on the ground marks the extent of the canopy, an imprint that will be raked away by evening. I lower my head and inhale again. Chopped fennel, a hint of mushroomy soil. The odor is intense, like diving in, mouth open. All at once, years of slowly accumulated aromas in ash wood are liberated into the air."
posted by not_the_water (18 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
How lovely. Thank you so much for this.
posted by wicked_sassy at 11:00 AM on May 3

Came for the ponderosa pine, was not disappointed. People call me a tree-hugger, but what they don't know is that I'm really sniffing them.
posted by mollweide at 11:54 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Beautiful, and from one of my new favorite online places no less!

This bit jumped out at me, regarding the gingko tree:

A living fossil, the tree evolved before the giant supercontinent Pangaea broke apart. The tree graced forests worldwide in the Jurassic and Cretaceous. From the end of the Cretaceous, sixty-five million years ago, to the present, wild populations declined then disappeared, first from the southern hemisphere then gradually across the northern continents.

Though not, I think, as old as the gingko, there at least two species of trees in my immediate area that depended on megafauna for seed dispersal: the honeylocust, which makes long dried pods similar to giant beans, and the osage orange, which makes a knobby green fruit about the size of a softball. There are several gorgeous honeylocusts in our yard; I found an osage orange fruit nearby once on a hike and chucked the fruit into the margins of the back, hoping it will take root and grow.

They thrive in this area, growing and fruiting dependably, but the animals for which they evolved on are long , long gone. The trees just haven't gotten the news yet.
posted by jquinby at 12:10 PM on May 3 [6 favorites]

So in addition to hugging them I have to sniff them as well? Not sure where this is going...
posted by jim in austin at 12:49 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

I'm currently in Arizona, where you can gently rub creosote branches to release their spiky / subtle scent AND munch on mesquite pods come summer. And the fragrance of oak and maple leaves from my childhood autumns in eastern Pennsylvania is easy (but bittersweet) to call to mind.

This is all to say: Thank you for posting this lovely piece.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:24 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Lovely article, the birds must be hungry. They ate every creosote berry on the bush. This bush used to be a tree with an 18 inch trunk. I never knew they grew this big.
posted by Oyéah at 2:26 PM on May 3

All week, the street air is drunk on basswood flowers. The knots inside us loosen.

…I just recognized that one of the things about this past year is that I didn't get to smell the mock orange tree that grows outside my apartment building, and that's one of my favorite scents. Also the linden-or-whatever-it-is tree next to the bus stop that has square flowers and a beautifully sweet aroma – haven't smelled that for more than a year.
posted by Lexica at 3:02 PM on May 3

Thank you.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 3:11 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

This is such an excellent piece for a Monday. When I lived in proximity to the campus (and later, the legislative grounds) it was the outrageously prominent scent when the lilacs were in full bloom.. Wow. Here in the boreal forests of northern Alberta, we are a little ways off from the full blast of spring, but when it comes.. Boom! the oxygen content on the trails positively shoots up, the air feels thicker with.. pure life energy, it's intoxicating. I think this is an aspect of having a short season/growing period, all this life is just exploding to make the most of the time.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:44 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

Poplars and cottonwoods make a smell when leafing out in the spring described as propolis. It comes from a golden, sticky substances on the newest leaves. You've smelled it, but likely you don't know what dealt it.

The Jeffrey Pine in the Sierra Nevada make a distinctly vanilla scent. You shove your nose into the bark at eye level and inhale very slowly through your nose. You can hug if you want people in the rest stops on I-80 to stare at you.

The city sycamores have a musky scent that I don't entirely like, except that it means a sycamore is nearby. It's easier to smell them when you are walking through riparian growth, with the higher humidity.
posted by the Real Dan at 6:14 PM on May 3

Great essay. The last section, on olive trees, reminded me of a question about our history with them I’ve had for years but have made very little progress toward answering:
Over time, people deepened the sophistication of their labors on behalf of olive trees. We built irrigation canals and terraces, tilled and cleared the soil, groomed trees with pruning blades, and mastered grafting and transplantation. The reward for those trees whose fruits appealed to human senses was domination of fields and rocky hillsides all around the Mediterranean basin. The reward for humans, too, was abundance. Olives yield more nutrition from the seasonally arid land than any other crop. Without olive trees, Knossos, Carthage, Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome would have been modest villages. Mediterranean culture was, for millennia, founded on reciprocity with olive trees.
If we were to go to the market and buy a bottle of olive oil, as I understand it we would receive a mixture of seed oil and oil from the fruit, but as anyone who’s suffered a misadventure with an incompletely pitted whole olive can attest, the pits aren’t that easy to break open.

Did the ancients also extract and consume the seed oil, or were olive seeds too tough a nut to crack?

It’s in the interests of the olive tree not to poison its seed dispersers, but as soon as one begins to digest the contents of the seeds, as birds with their stone bearing gizzards might be able to do relatively easily, that calculation turns itself inside out, and poisonous seeds would therefore seem to be selected for.

I have a personal stake in this question, because over the decade before I was diagnosed with celiac disease I became sensitive to more than a dozen seed oils one after another; beginning with peanut oil, then walnut, sesame seed oil , canola, safflower, pumpkin seed oil, coconut oil, poppy seed oil, avocado oil, etcetera, and finally olive oil. I can still eat pure corn oil, and rice bran oil, but possibly only because I’ve avoided them to preserve my ability to eat corn and rice since wheat is off the table for me.

I asked a brand representative once why pure olive fruit oil was not commercially available, and he told me it was because it got rancid too easily.
posted by jamjam at 6:33 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

Sometimes in summer, when the winds just right, you can smell the sycamore trees well before you see them
posted by ockmockbock at 6:35 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Sycamores may be my favorite tree, but I'm ashamed to admit I haven't noticed their scent before. Now I have something else to do when I'm out and about birding.
posted by mollweide at 6:51 PM on May 3

I'm sorry to say this, but I have treated my plants horribly through the years. I actually sat down and wept when I realized that this little tomato plant was gamely struggling to survive after all the over-watering/under-watering I put it through. Today I am mindful of my plants every day. I have studied them! I feed and water them appropriately. I will never be a perfect gardener, but today I can hold a handful of compost and say "I did my best."
posted by SPrintF at 6:54 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Poplars and cottonwoods make a smell when leafing out in the spring described as propolis.

I was going to add cottonwoods to the mix and came to find they are related to if not outright poplars. That resinous turpentiney
tang is the smell of Spring to me.

On a sidenote, by the Celtic crossquarter calendar, Summer started Saturday.

And isn't propolis something honeybees make ?
posted by y2karl at 7:20 PM on May 3

Sycamores always smell like sort of an arborial donut shop to me. Sugary and leafy at the same time.
posted by corey flood at 7:58 PM on May 3

I was dead for at least 8 minutes, no oxygen, which generally doesn't make a brain happy, which, in fact, generally makes a brain dead. I'm not sure what all changes it has wrought but the most overt is that I lost the sense of smell. Totally. It's the sense that I'd have chosen to jettison, rather than vision or hearing -- as I see it I've really come off well. Still, I miss it.

Coffee brewing, or jest brewed, in the morning, on a Saturday or Sunday morning, thick, strong black coffee in those big sturdy white mugs I had then, the sunshine in my bedroom, my lover and myself luxuriating in all of that white bedding in my oak four-poster bed, listening to Folkways on KUT, or reading maybe, with me getting to make fun of her for the reading glasses she had perched on the end of her nose, which were six years in the future for me. Rosemary, really a favorite smell, so pungent, it was in fact the smell rosemary that I first noticed gone, in those first weeks out of the coma. Tea, also, I miss that, and how different black tea smells from green tea. And chamomile tea, lots of pleasant associations there. I've not been around babies very much in my life but I've been around them enough to know that sweet smell, a babies neck. Puppies breath another favorite -- gone. In fact the smell of dog, period -- I surely do miss that. That wonderful, almost electric smell in the air as the wind begins to pick up just before a really good, pounding rain. The soothing smell, in the evening, when that storm has gone on by, the sky clear, the stars bright, and then that soothing smell, if I'm down by the river, it was almost as though I were able to smell the process of new growth of the plants close to the water. I miss that.

My mother had a plant in her home in Scottsdale, flowered indoors, smelled so good. I don't know the plant but remember how the smell of its flowers went all around the kitchen / dining room area, a nice thing for me to think about just now -- my parents truly did have golden years, 20 good years there in Arizona, more like great years, not that they got past who they were but more maybe that they saw how good it was and appreciated it, together. Not too many people get what they had in those years, and I think that it's great that my thinking of a very healthy, flowering plant in their home on Mc Kellips Road brings me a smile, happy that they had what they did, and happy that they knew it, also. My father had planted grapefruit trees and orange trees and this one amazing lemon tree, for whatever reason I don't recall the smell(s) of those trees so much as working on them, and in them, especially that lemon tree, which was unbelievably healthy, continually throwing up runners to the sky, which needed cut so the tree would keep producing those amazing lemons, bigger than my fist, and bigger than your fist also.

Sheydem-tants, up-thread, mentioned the smell of creosote branches in Arizona -- I remember well the first time I smelled that, after a rain shower in Tucson, the sky still gray, winter, walking in the desert with a woman I loved so much, and her telling me that rich black licorice smell was creosote. Drinking gin, when I used to drink, and how it smelled of but really tasted of chewing pine tree needles. Speaking of alcohol, scotch, which I sure loved, I loved how it smelled but totally took it for granted. In fact, I pretty much took *all* of these smells for granted, other than that fresh smell of babies, and of puppies breath also. Joni Mitchell told us that we don't know what we've got till it's gone which didn't mean much to me but means more now maybe.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:59 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Tree lover here, and I do appreciate the breadth of perception in the linked article, however the pull quote in the OP struck me like a horror story.

Imagine it had been written about another species:

"I kneel at the pile of fresh minced panda and scoop a double handful to my nose. A wet-red aroma: chopped koala and hedgehog, backed by a whisper of putridity. Four hours ago, an panda stood here. Now, its trunk and limbs are gone, hauled off by the butcher’s crew. A bone grinder’s spinning maw turned the panda’s skeleton and the upper hide into a heap of pulverized dust. A circle of black and white hair on the ground marks the extent of the carnage, an imprint that will be raked away by evening. I lower my head and inhale again. Chopped kitten, a hint of iron blood. The odor is intense, like diving in, mouth open. All at once, years of slowly accumulated aromas in panda are liberated into the air."
posted by fairmettle at 10:22 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

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