Friday, March 18, 2011

STICKING YOUR NOSE OUT – The Bipolar Buckthorn

One hot, steamy summer many years ago I kept getting wafts of some delicious floral fragrance at the back door of my Southeast Minneapolis home. I noticed it happened only on sunny afternoons and only when the breeze was coming from the west. But the only plants of any kind nearby were a row of scraggly old buckthorn trees (a species targeted for eradication by environmentalists for its inability to play nice with other, more genteel plants).

Distilled in the warm, moist air, thousands of those tiny hints of scent were joining, concentrating to give the motley grove its surprisingly intense output.

I had to get to the bottom of this. At first, there didn't appear to be any flowers on the buckthorn. Sure enough though, on very close inspection, I found its lower branches thinly clustered with barely visible, mostly green blossoms. Even when I put my nose right against one of the bracts, I detected only the faintest smell, but it was the right smell. Together, distilled in the warm, moist air, thousands of those tiny whispers of scent were concentrating to give the motley grove its surprisingly intense output.

Common buckthorn, with its reticent flowers

I'd almost forgotten about buckthorn until last summer. Walking along the beautiful, high wooded banks of the Mississippi near our home, I noticed a familiar smell. Again, I had to look very closely, but there they were: thousands of those despised buckthorn bushes with their presumptuous blooms, crowding out the sumac and honeysuckle. Warm them for a while in the sun on a south-facing slope, add a little breeze as the heat rises up the bank from the river, and you have the recipe for that most delicious odor. It’s almost enough to make one forgive the plant for its poor manners.

Buckthorn is just one of a universe of botanical aromas out there waiting to be discovered. If you want to see for yourself, here’s a simple exercise. Every time you notice a plant—anything from a weed to a tree—with anything on its branches besides leaves, seeds or berries, see if it might be a flower. Check out every blossom you see and—you guessed it—smell it. Even if it seems too common to be interesting, even if it looks like it couldn’t possibly have a smell, many will surprise you.


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