Healing Gardens and Scent Memories

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. John Burroughs

As I mentioned in my previous post, I want to share more about this idea of the health benefits of gardens. I’ve come across some of this before, but my impetus to write about it now was an article* in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine. The article gave advice from Marni Barnes, a landscape architect who designs healing gardens.

Benches at Matthaei Botanical Gardens w sigI was surprised at some of the simple but important considerations when planning a garden for dementia patients. Pathways are useful for people who need room to pace back and forth; fences or other enclosures give a sense of security. The choice of plants can give comfort too — from tall grasses swaying in the breeze, to nectar-rich flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, to favorite classic flowers from a person’s past, like hollyhocks or lilacs.

But what I really want to talk about is the scent factor. It’s been known for a long time that our sense of smell is closely tied to our memories. We’ve all had the experience of catching the aroma of something and instantly being flooded with memories of a time or place involving that scent, right? I’m guessing that one of the most common ones is probably the smell of chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, maybe bringing back the feelings of happy times in childhood. The odor of pipe tobacco also seems to be a common one.

Fish drying in the sun

Fish drying in the sun, a faded polaroid from 1989

As you can imagine, with my extra-sensitive nose, I’ve got lots of scent memory triggers. One day I was surprised when I suddenly remembered walking down a neighborhood street in Japan, as if I were right there. I lived there from the ages of 24-29, but this happened when I was in my early 40s. At first I didn’t know why I’d had that thought, but then I noticed the unmistakable smell of dried fish and it all made sense; it wasn’t uncommon to come across wire racks of fish set out to dry on the sidewalk in small villages around Japan. Our brains are amazing organs, aren’t they?

These big ants love the sticky buds of peonies

These big ants love the sticky buds of peonies

One of my strongest and favorite scent memories is from peonies. My grandma (Dad’s mom) had peonies growing beside her front porch. I have vivid memories of the big ants that were always crawling all over the buds, but the lovely aroma of those petals is also locked deep in my brain. So much so that I sometimes walk around the local nursery sticking my nose into all the peonies, inhaling the gentle fragrance and being transported instantly back to Grandma’s house in West Virginia.

My Duchesse de Nemours Peonies outside the kitchen window

My Duchesse de Nemours Peonies outside the kitchen window

I love peonies so much that I’ve been trying to grow them here in our yard where the deer eat almost anything that grows higher than the grass. I’ve had some failures, but at this point I’ve got 4 Duchess de Nemours peony plants that have bloomed fairly well for the past two years. I planted three of them at eye level right outside the window over the kitchen sink (our kitchen is half underground on a sloped lot, so the ground level is slightly above the counter).

When my peonies start to drop their petals I gather them up in a dish and bring them inside so I can pick them up and sniff them a while longer. If only someone could invent a peony that would bloom all summer long….

Sniff this and relax....

Sniff this and relax….

What’s strange about this scent memory is that it comes from childhood, probably from the ages of 5 to 15, and I don’t really remember much else about our visits to Grandma’s house. A few memories of playing lawn darts and climbing her big tree in the back yard, but not much else. I must have been happy there though, because when I smell peonies I get a feeling of calm washing over me. Isn’t that strange, yet wonderful?

The funniest scent memory trigger I’ve ever heard was from our furnace repair guy. He’s a native Michigander who lived for a time in California. He says that the smell of skunk always reminded him of his home in Michigan — in a good way! Too funny. So what kind of scent memories do you have?


*Rachael Liska. “Where Wellness Grows.” Birds & Blooms, Dec/Jan 2013.

Further Reading: If you’re so inclined, the article cited an interesting-sounding book by Marni Barnes called Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations.

This entry was posted in Ecotherapy, Flowers and Gardening, Health and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Healing Gardens and Scent Memories

  1. Pingback: Anticipation = Happiness | Nature Is My Therapy

  2. Littlesundog says:

    I do not have a good sense of smell. I have no idea what happened, but at some point, in my teens, I lost my ability to smell except for the most potent odors. Peonies and roses remind me of my Dad’s mother’s gardens. Petunia’s remind me of my mother’s mom. Sauteing butter reminds me of my mothers home-cooked meals.

    I tend to be drawn back in time and memory to music and songs of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I can also remember what I was wearing on most any past event. Isn’t that strange, how different media brings back certain memories?

    • Kim says:

      That’s too bad about your sense of smell, Lori. Eric can’t smell much either, so he says he doesn’t have any scent memories.

      Music is a great memory trigger for me too — when I listen to my favorite 70s music I feel happy. That’s why my iPod is loaded with funk, classic rock, and even a bit of disco. When I was growing up our town had a dance for teenagers every Saturday night year round, just two blocks from our house. In the winter it was in the YMCA gymnasium, and in the summer it was in an open-air pavilion at the city park. Happy times indeed. Thanks for that memory!

  3. drbobsbirds says:

    Nice article! Let’s see. Dried fish? … definitely Chinatown in SF! Skunk? .. a sign of spring in Michigan! I know it’s spring when I get the skunk odor. Actually I find it pleasant in small amounts as in passing road kill …maybe that is why they put it in perfume in addition to its “staying power”? Really! Also it has horrible memories of not being able to sleep when one has sprayed too close to home during the night! Gotta have ups and downers to the same odor when so sensitive! Interesting that you did not allude to the overpowering impact of some (most?) scents … Yes, that would be a long story! You mentioned a flower, and I remembered my last experience bringing an early spring Hyacinth indoors. Pleasant initially, but I had to get rid of it. Who would have thought such a small flower would overpower the whole downstairs?!!!

    • Kim says:

      I had no idea they used skunk oil in perfume — how interesting! And I love hyacinths too, Dr. Bob, but I can’t tolerate them indoors either. Far too strong a scent in a closed space.

      You’re right, I should write more about how overpowering some smells are for my sensitive nose. For example, I can’t even walk inside a candle store. Literally cannot go inside, it’s that painful.

I love your comments -- talk to me here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s