Heaven Scent

Getting intoxicated by the desert is usually an ascetic’s game. The grand sweep of angular vistas, the improbable colors of rock, the clean dry crystal air, the scattered plants and the generally spiky and venomous nature of so many inhabitants—this isn’t a cushy place to relax. But when we went down to Death Valley this spring to see the bloom of the century, we were made dizzy by the scents on the wind.

On the strong wind. The day we arrived, it was blowing 25 to 30 miles an hour, strong enough to make us tighten our hats and duck the occasional blast of sand, strong enough to sponsor whole sandstorms and horizontal rain showers. Tripods were blooming beside every road, as photographers drawn by the spectacle steadied their cameras against the gale. These weren’t conditions conducive to savoring delicate scents.

There are lots of scented plants in any dry place: artemisia sagebrush species, salvias of many sorts, creosote bush, so many of the chaparral species like yerba santa. Most of those are of the scratch-n-sniff variety: you have to crush or rub a leaf to get the full effect. Sometimes the sun warming the plant will have an effect, and sometimes rain will too. These scents are from the oils the plants manufacture to help them retain water, worn as a waxy coat on the leaves or permeating their whole structures. They tend to be tangy and a bit astringent to the nose. Sometimes they’re complex, with notes of citrus, dust, spruce, and eucalypt. (Yikes. I’m beginning to sound like the Thursday wine proseurs in the Chron.)

What was bowling us over in Death Valley, though, was of a different order. It was a tide of flower scents, from some—just some—of the blooms that we were waist-deep in. It was heady indeed: sweet and musky and very sexy. No surprise, when you think of what flowers are for.

It hadn’t occurred to me to go sticking my nose in the posies until I read a post from someone on the California native plants email list, with a brief aside about not forgetting to stop and smell those flowers at which we were all marveling. Between that and the redolent air at our first roadside stop, I was determined to sniff anything that held still long enough.

The first surprise was that what was scenting the air in that huge insta-meadow wasn’t what we were seeing the most of. Desert gold (Geraea canescens) was spread out before us in waist-high yellow lace covering acres and acres of valley, folded hills, swales, random slopes. It was an ominously overcast day, so the ground seemed brighter than the sky.

But the scent came from less common flowers; right there it was mostly gravel-ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla), a different composite just about as tall but with white flowers. The scent was sweetly musky—it might even have been unpleasant if it were heavier. On banks and little rises was a very similar flower on a much shorter plant: desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), which smelled just like vanilla buttercream.

The desert’s mainstay, creosote bush, was blooming golden too. In the morning its flowers smelled lemony, light; in the afternoon all I could smell was the foliage. Purple desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) was like sweet violets, also a bit musky. A gold-flowered sparse bush called sweetshrub had attracted butterflies, including a few of the millions of painted ladies on their northbound caravan, with its honeylike scent. And which other purple flower smelled a bit like Concord grapes? It was dizzying.

The white, heavily scented flowers are probably pollinated by moths. That scent and the beacon of the petals would signal nectar to any insect under the moon. As the wind was so strong, we saw few other insects abroad, aside from those blizzards of painted ladies. I’m not sure yet what the various other plants were trying to lure.

It’s odd how inadequate our vocabulary is to describe scent and taste. We resort to comparisons, fumbling with a scant assortment of adjectives compared to those we have for sight and sound. As a result, we find it harder to recall new scents precisely, for all that scent is such a powerful memory trigger. But it’s clear that we share with many insects—bees, butterflies and moths, some flies and beetles—a desire for that sweetness, that musk. We plant our gardens for scent as well as vision, and retreat into inarticulate admiration for that particular, peculiar chemoreception we have in common with such distant relatives.

Possibly it’s all too intimate for easy talk. Possibly the industrious fuss of bees and the silence of moths is the only vocabulary we have to consider flowers’ sweetness.

Ron Sullivan, author of The Garden Lover’s Guide: San Francisco Bay Area and blogger at www.faultline.org, writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Daily Planet.

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