Lime, I think. I have put my nose in the flower wand of beargrass. The fragrance is fruity—pungently so, richly citrusy—like a lime, I think. Squeeze a wedge of lime—just before dropping it in your drink—and that is beargrass in full flower.
We lack a vocabulary for scents. We steal from nouns for fragrance, making them fruity or skunky. Or we simply take a word to convey displeasure at odor, such as foul. Our language—at least English—lacks words specific to scents. I can think of no special word, aside from skunky, that calls universally to mind a scent. The paucity of words limits our sense of fragrance. Understanding is robbed by missing vocabulary.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom we know best for his Social Contract and Confessions and for the notion of the noble savage, his sense that civilization corrupted humans, lamented the lack of names for smells. Rousseau botanized ardently and was said never to have collected a plant without smelling it. It was also said that Rousseau could recognize plants by their smells alone.
High in mountains, I walk across the headwaters of Gedney Creek. At a creek crossing, I take a long step to a flat-topped stone at the water’s surface and a second long step to a midstream clump of willows, then hop to a boulder top, and lope finally to the other bank. Above the creek, there is a swale that is edged by mountain ash, a small tree that has a trunk no wider than two fingers. The branches of the mountain ash, heavy with hemispherical clumps of small white flowers, droop. This relative of the rose smells strongly but not with a rose’s scent. As I approach the band of small trees, I think the smell is animal—perhaps a long dead animal. I grab a few of the mountain ash flowers to rub them in my fingers below my nose. I breathe and wonder at the foul smell. It is the odor of very dirty, once wet and then long stashed laundry.
Above the swale on a drier, open slope of low shrubs, I breathe sorbet and sort among the flowers to find it. It is neither thimbleberry or rose nor the blue-flowered penstemon. Not mountain heath. The sweet, lightly fruity fragrance is false azalea, a cousin of the mountain heath. The false azalea flowers are little bottles tipped upside down on elegant stalks that curve out and around below sprays of emerging leaves from the tips of branches. I cup leaves and branch tip in my hand to smell the flowers, which leaves a sticky spot on my nose. There is a sticky film on my fingers. I take a leaf for a closer look with my hand lens. There are glandular hairs on the leaf—each hair has a swollen tip that glistens in the sun from its sticky exudate, which is probably similar to the nectar made in the flowers. The leaf ‘nectar’ might have a smell of its own if I could gather enough for a whiff. My fingers smell still of the flower’s sorbet.
Another sweetness is broad and strong higher on the slope. Tall shrubs hang over the trail. The mountain balm, a Ceanothus known also as wild lilac, a name than conveys the strength of the plant’s scent, has scepter-like branches that seem dipped in honey. Delicate, white flowers are clustered like swollen drops, bulb-tipped and ready to drip, at the tips of the branches. To smell the flowers is to put your nose in a jar of honey. The sweet fragrance diffuses across the high slope.
I walk uphill, back into forest and over small patches of snow, where rivulets of water flow down the trail. There are steep switchbacks, and I stop to rest and breathe deeply every few steps. Then I emerge from treeline into high meadow, where matted sedges and grasses are just now standing, released by snow melt. The mountain pasqueflowers are in bloom, and I kneel for a deep smell. Nothing, I think. Nothing more than wet soil and fresh grass. Nothing but a tickle, the only offering for my nose, from the pasqueflower’s hairy tepals.