This month, I've been learning a lot about the scents of flowers and the evolution of flower scents in the commercial flower industry.
Sadly, in our fast-paced, consumer-based world the scents of flowers have been gradually lessening and disappearing due to breeding programs that favor the look of the blooms, the length of the stems, and the vase life of the varieties over the flowers' scents. There are just too many variables in play before smell. Which is a shame, because scent is often the most important factor leading to a flower species' survival in the wild. Scents support flower survival because they attract pollinators. Wild roses, for example, could not survive without their sweet scents. To read an article about a rose scent comparison study, click here. For news about the commercial rose industry and flower scent, read this article.
This month, we took a break from our usual market sales days to offer our flower stand visitors something different. I put together a free "smellatorium" - an exhibit of the plants and flowers that bring lovely scents to our bouquets and arrangements. I hoped to share with customers the experience of enjoying a wide variety of smells, from savory to super sweet. Many guests were surprised by several of the items in the exhibit.
Here is a list of the species from our little exhibit and a few more that are now blooming on the farm.
This plant and flower has a savory, peppery scent. While most of us know calendula for its bold orange and yellow flowers (not my favorite), you can also find softer varieties to grow, like this Calendula Bronzed Beauty or Calendula Zeolights.
Stock seemed to give the majority of "Smellatorium" guests the warmest memories. It's light scent reminds me of cloves and sweet spices used in baking. I grew a shorter stemmed series this year of vintage white and vintage lavender from Swallowtail Garden Seeds. The plants were hardy. They withstood a late frost and branched nicely. I'll also try the taller Katz series from Johnny's Selected Seeds next year. Stock is an early spring flower. It has gone by now in our fields, save for a couple of plants I left just to see how they go to seed.
A standard in many home gardens and a common ingredient in cooking, mint also makes a wonderful addition to floral arrangements. I tucked early stems of mint into floral crowns for a local elementary school's graduation this year. Customers were surprised by the scent and got to enjoy it each time they held or hugged their children.
Sweet Annie (also known as Artemesia, sweet wormwood, sweet sagewort, or annual mugwort) made for the most "oohs" and "ahhs" at the two "Smellatorium" market stands. I found that very few customers had ever smelled it. Sweet Annie is native to temperate Asia, but has become naturalized in some parts of North America. Our plants are cultivated from seed. Sweet Annie greens have a refreshingly sweet - almost bubble-gummy - scent, that can't really be compared to anything. The greens can go through a short period of wilting after cutting, before they perk up again. It is important to leave time to cool and hydrate stems before they are used in arrangements. It also works well as a dried component in wreaths.
Lavender. Oh lavender. It's amazing and there are a ton of different varieties. North country folk shouldn't miss a visit to Bleu Lanvade, a lavender farm in nearby Stanstead, Quebec. Lavender works well fresh or dried in small bouquets and arrangements. We have several varieties on the farm. Right now, they are working through the shock of being moved from our old place in New Hampshire and our very wet spring. I'm largely leaving them alone this season.
English Garden Roses:
We have 5 varieties of English garden roses that are settling into the perennial field this season. As first year, own root bushes, they have a lot of growing to do before they can be used for cut flower production. I'm hoping that what I learn from these bushes will lead to a larger wholesale purchase in the future. They come 50 plants at a time- so I want to be sure I'm ordering the types that will perform best in our clay soil and in our zone (3/4). These roses smell incredible. Unlike roses grown for stem length, vase life, and perfect flowers- scent has been a priority in their development by David Austin Roses - breeders of 900 varieties of fragrant English roses since the early 1950s. So far, my favorite is Abraham Darby. It is an ivory flower with peaches and pinks at the center.
Allium is a member of the onion family. Most folks are familiar with the giant purple allium globemaster, and less with the Allium Drumsticks and Allium Hair that we included in the exhibit. Both of these lesser known varieties add small, funky components to arrangements. Their scent comes mostly from cut stems, similar to chives or scallions. Because the ends of the stems are often under water in a vase, you don't need to worry too much about the scent offending customers. I haven't met anyone yet who is looking for an onion-scented bouquet!
Sweet peas have delighted our customers this season. The wet spring and summer have been hard on most of our other plants, but the sweet peas haven't minded the weather one bit. I can't count how many times a customer has come up to the market stand and exclaimed, "Ooohh sweet peas! What a beautiful old-fashioned flower. You just don't see them much anymore. My grandmother grew these." Their scent is irreplaceable. They don't have the longest stems, but they make up for it with their many many blooms and incredible smell.
Wild white yarrow (or common yarrow) is abundant here in the Adirondacks and in many parts of the northern hemisphere. It is most fragrant in large bunches. Some guests could not smell its scent from a bud vase, but it was obvious from the large bucket I had next to the table. We grow more than 10 different colors of cultivated yarrow on the farm- from a warm pastel purple to a creamy yellow color, and even the bright pink "Saucy Seduction" variety - tough name...
Clover. Yep, clover is on my list. You can find it in ditches. It's free, and it's incredible. This under-appreciated "weed" has been my happiest re-discovery this season. I've been shocked by the long stems I've found along the road by our farm and at the edges of the fields. I took some time in June to harvest a whole bucket of it, and I was fascinated by the sweet scent of honey wafting out of the bucket. It reminded me of childhood playground memories- of making necklace chains of purple clover blooms. Clover flowers add a nice, spherical "pom" element to arrangements, not unlike gomphrena- which take a lot more work!
I have a few garden phlox plants that I purchased from a perennial retailer as small plants. This is the first season I've grown them from seed. I just started harvesting my first stems of Phlox Sugar Stars from Floret's seed shop. They are adorable, and fade from a bold purple and white to a softer combination as they age. I'm in love with how they look - and how they smell. If you could bottle the perfect gentle floral scent, this would be it.
Bells of Ireland:
Some people really love Bells of Ireland. They aren't my favorite, but I'm learning to appreciate them more. I find that their flowers need a lot of pruning and that their odd scent is somewhat reminiscent of cleaning products. They are funky looking and, in my opinion, a bit strange smelling, but they've earned a place in the annual beds nonetheless. And- there is a small vase of Bells of Ireland flowers with a deep red dahlia on my coffee table right now. Together, they look bizarrely like a cactus in bloom.
We have a variety of dill in the fields this year that is being grown both for it's flower and for its scent. Bouquet dill is a little lighter on the "dill" smell than other varieties intended solely for culinary pursuits. The flowers are large bright yellow-green disks of florets, similar to lace flowers. Dill is fast-growing, but it doesn't like to be transplanted. If you must transplant it, you may notice significant wilting at first. Be patient. Give the new transplant plenty of water. It will bounce back. Cut the flowers for use when they have fully opened, otherwise they will look limp in the vase. Be sure to pinch bouquet dill as it grows so that you don't end up with giant single stocks of it. I have a few plants that look more like dill trees right now, because they escaped pinching earlier!
As always, thank you for your interest in locally, sustainably-grown flowers. Please let me know if you have any questions or ideas for our farm. Don't hesitate to leave a comment. I hope this post has encouraged you to take time to enjoy the smells of summer.