I am always advising perfume lovers to re-appraise their scents regularly: our favourite fragrances change with our circumstances. The same applies to the living natural world. Whatever the Jonahs and Cassandras may say this has been a cracking summer so far – at any rate for gardeners.¤ Everything in the garden has been lovely: there must have been a singular balance of elements last winter which primed everything just right for strong healthy growth, the annihilation of aphids (remember the havoc they caused in 2014?) and a profusion of delicious odours, all subtly or radically different from previous flowerings.
For a start, the roses came right again after the disaster of last year. My pink Constance Spry climber has flowered for its allotted four weeks, great silken flowers like fragile baby cabbbages smelling of powdered myrrh and delicate skin. These are the sort of roses you see stitched onto hats in “Titanic” lifeboats and pinned to the the straps of vintage blue chiffon evening gowns. You stand there at sunset, gawping at them in the twilight, and every so often there comes the softest rustle and ‘plop!’ – ‘notto!’ as the Japanese say – as another full-blown blossom falls apart.
Roses smelling of cold cream, soap, tea, lemon, peaches and even one strangely like Lancome’s sweet treasure Tresor…and then there are the pale faint dog roses which canopy the the fox trails up the fields. I like to have a couple of stems in water with stalks of lavender (just coming out now – a bumper year for lavender). Someone told me how effective roses look in a glass arranged with sprigs of mint. And they do: but it seems to me it’s like the fatal mix of daffodils and tulips – the mint kills off the roses. In a bed together, however, they go good: I have nearly-black-peppermint, apple mint and variegated pineapple mint (eats well with tomatoes) in abundance. People always warn of mint being invasive but not in this poor soil: I would be quite happy to see it on the rampage, covering a few stubborn bald patches.
Mauve opium poppies cast their sour black dusty scent on the breeze, thickened by the sharpness of silver artemisia and the small white daisy flowers of the intensely bitter feverfew. I’m addicted to the fragrant cumin fumes of curry plant (helichrysum): its smell is even more beguiling than the slender golden flower sprays and metallic grey leaves. After rain, or when you brush against the feathery bush, the spiciness billows off it in mouthwatering waves reminiscent of curried baked beans “with added sultanas”. It has a cousin which smells of Parmesan cheese – or even bacon – and which sports round flat flowers like tiny yellow buttons. I used to confuse these two plants but they and their culinary odours are quite distinct & discrete. I nipped off a twig from a great woody thicket in a London street and it’s doing well in a pot, far from home but not at all astonished. Also new this year are angelica (can anyone advise of culinary uses apart from cake decoration?), and lovage whose seeds are redolent of celery.
The bearded iris – now long gone – smelled this year of the smoothest most luxurious dessert wine; the cow parsley and hemlock in the meadows were like the heady heavy sillage from the Paris Caron boutique; the luxuriant French marigolds emit the peppery bite of Malle’s Noir Epices. Now, these latter are quite hideous flowers in town parks, lined up in baked earth with parched salvias; but a few marigolds in a pot (maybe underplanted with colour-coded nasturtiums) are gorgeous. Their crude fiery hues are exhilarating and they keep flies out of the house if you grow them under windows or by the back door. If you like strong smells try clove pinks too, carnations and geraniums. I now have some wild garlic for the first time: the birds brought seedlings which took. Garlic has attractive clusters of tiny white or pale lilac flowers and the odd pungent whiff mixed with first the bluebells and now with meady honeysuckle or purple thyme is gorgeous, all the more so for being a trifle perverse and unexpected.
One thing which has struck me as entirely new – the nose, you see, luckily keeps on developing, even in one’s seventh decade – is the smell of elderflower. All my life I have known these spreading creamy plates of powdery sneezy blossom, sometimes brewed up to make sparkling elder champagne: but this summer for the first time that I can remember I have smelled the fruit yet to come in the flowers – the succulent juicy scent floating out on the warm evening air. Mouthwatering.
¤ all we need to watch now is this heat. The terrific thunderstorms at the weekend were the gardener’s friend but a week of baking temperatures has caused wilting, scorching and a good deal of anxiety. More rain, please, SS Anne + Agricola!