Scents of the Season

Often when we explore the natural world, we pay most attention to what we see.  That’s normal since we developed as a primarily vision-based organism, but there are 4 other senses we can also use to broaden our understanding of the world and we shouldn’t neglect them.

I like to think of our sense of smell as our most intimate sense.  That’s because, when you smell something, you’re actually taking tiny molecules of what you’re smelling into your nose.  Your brain then “decodes” the molecules, resulting in you recognizing that you’re smelling a rose, for instance, or a skunk(!).

Spring and Summer are full of great scents.  Yesterday as I walked out my office door, a huge wash of fresh, rain-soaked air assailed my nostrils.

A rain shaft at the base of a thunderstorm Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve which is one of several reserves in the lower lower Adelaide River catchment in the Northern Territory. A thunderstorm dumps heavy rain over Fogg Dam during the Build-Up which is the lead-up to the Wet Season. Photo by Bidgee.  Wikipedia.org.
A rain shaft at the base of a thunderstorm
Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve which is one of several reserves in the lower lower Adelaide River catchment in the Northern Territory. A thunderstorm dumps heavy rain over Fogg Dam during the Build-Up which is the lead-up to the Wet Season. Photo by Bidgee. Wikipedia.org.

There had just been a downpour and I couldn’t get enough of the smell of the rain mixed with wet pavement and greenery.  There’s even a specific word for the smell of rain after a dry spell: petrichor!

The smell of rain in the warm months is one of my favorites, but it’s actually not the water itself that causes that wonderful aroma.  That scent actually comes from bacterial spores in the soil being released.  These bacteria are called Actinomycetes and are apparently very common around the world.

Another favorite smell of mine is one I only discovered after moving to Colorado.  While on a wildflower hike back in May, I kept getting whiffs of a sweet, butterscotch scent.  At first I thought it was a fellow hiker’s body lotion, but it was actually a Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).

U.S. Forest Service guide Steve Hirst sniffs a Ponderosa pine during a July hike in an area near Hot Shot Ranch in Coconino National Forest. Photo taken by Tom Bean.  NPR.org
U.S. Forest Service guide Steve Hirst sniffs a Ponderosa pine during a July hike in an area near Hot Shot Ranch in Coconino National Forest. Photo taken by Tom Bean. NPR.org

Several varieties of Ponderosa pine exist, but all are native to the western United States, including Colorado, where they are usually found at high elevations.  That butterscotch odor I detected apparently comes from the pine’s sap, though it’s not certain exactly which chemical in the sap is the one responsible.

So those are 2 of my favorite natural scents.  What are a few of yours?

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