What's That Smell?

Using Your Sense of Smell to Connect With Nature

Picture a beautiful, sunny summer day. I am relaxed and happy, hiking along a lake, watching a pair of swans feeding and preening.  And all of the sudden, I smell something. It is a mixture of rotten meat and body odor. It is very faint, but so repulsive that I have to know what is causing it. I look around, and see bright orange octopus-like mushrooms emerging from the leaf litter. Leaning down, I decide to touch one. It is slimy, and I reel back in disgust as the smell overwhelms me. I find out later that I have encountered a type of mushroom called a stinky squid.

In nature, there are good smells, and, well…not so good smells. But there is a reason for them all. Each smell sends its own message to the receiver. In animals and humans, our sense of smell tells us in a very basic way what we are attracted to, and what we are not.

The sense of smell, or olfaction, is a powerful and primitive tool for navigating the world around us.  Olfaction is directly connected with the limbic system of our brain, which is the system that also processes memories and emotions. Have you ever experienced a smell that you strongly associate with a specific memory? As a child I attended a favorite summer camp that was full of pine trees. There is a certain scent that is emitted from the sun hitting the ground and warming decaying pine needles. To this day when I smell this, I automatically go back to the time when I was a child at summer camp. I feel excited and happy, even though the memory association is over twenty years old.

The ability to change the patterning of your emotions and mind just by using your sense of smell is akin to magic. This ‘magic’ actually is a special adaptation that developed over thousands of years. Primitive humans would have had to rely on their sense of smell to determine whether they found a potential source of food or medicine. It makes sense that smell is so strongly connected to the memory center in the brain. If you find a plant that is toxic, it is important to never eat it again. Smelling that plant would place a solid scent memory into your consciousness so that you are less likely to make a mistake in the future.  

As a naturalist, I often use my sense of smell to help me learn about the world. I have learned that if I just look at a plant, I will often forget about it within a short time. If I touch a plant, I am more likely to remember it. But if I smell a plant, I will never forget it. I often use smell as a major indicator if I am trying to identify a mystery plant.

Here are a few common plants with distinctive smells. I can’t say that all of these smells are my favorite, but they are unforgettable!

1) Birch Trees (Betula lenta): People’s brains interpret smells in different ways. The perfect example of this is the black birch tree. Take a small section of the new growth at the end of a branch, scrape back the bark with your fingernail, and smell the new green wood. I have heard two interpretations of this smell: root beer or wintergreen. Birch is an ancient tree and is commonly found in our area. You can identify a birch tree by the horizontal ridges on its bark, which are used by the tree for gas exchange. Native Americans used this tree medicinally, to heal wounds and
skin conditions, and as a blood cleanser.

2) Stinkhorn Fungus (Phallaceae sp.): Stinkhorn mushrooms are as disturbing to smell as they are baffling to look at. The defining characteristic of stinkhorn fungus is that at some time during its life cycle the fruiting bodies (or mushrooms) are covered with a stinky-smelling mucous. To me, stinkhorns smell like something that has rotted and been left in a box for a year. The putrid smell attracts flies and other insects, who land on the mushroom and eat the mucous. Contained in that mucous are spores, so as these insects travel they unknowingly spread the spores that stick to their bodies. Stinkhorns vary in appearance from octopus-like, finger-like, and sometimes even phallic. They come in many colors, including bright pink, fluorescent orange, grey or flesh-colored.   

3) Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): To me, the smell of spicebush is a wonderful lemony-pineapple mixed with nose-tickling spice. Spicebush is a native shrub with plain-looking leaves and red berries. Because of its indistinct look, I often identify spicebush by its smell. Rub the leaves gently between your fingers and smell the leaf. It can most often be
found in damp, low areas such as stream sides and valleys. It has medicinal properties that strengthen the immune system by making you sweat, so it was often used to by Native Americans for colds and infections to force toxins out of the body. It is also a wonderful plant to have in your backyard, as it attracts butterflies.

Betsy Shaw Weiner May 24, 2012 at 11:07 AM
It's so true that smells stay with you throughout your life. As a young child I went to a camp in the high peak area of the Adirondacks. I have visited it several times over the years and it always smells the same - a mixture of the surrounding balsa firs, the horses, the vegetables growing, and the nearby lake, I suppose. And back comes my childhood to me.
NorthCountyHound May 24, 2012 at 12:53 PM
My Uncle was one of the first US Army troops to enter Dachau. That's a smell one never forgets.


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