Scents in the summer garden

Take a deep breath, and feel the love


Is it possible to breathe in … love? We think so. The heady scents that flourish at the Chicago Botanic Garden are enough to make anybody swoon: the floral embrace of a rose, the intoxicating aroma of lilies, the delectable waft of cocoa from chocolate cosmos, or an herb garden filled with the scintillating bouquets of basil, oregano, and rosemary.

Plant scents evolved to entice bees, butterflies, and other creatures to transfer the plants’ pollen and extend the species. At some point in time, humans embarked on their own love affair with fragrances of the natural world.

There’s something magical about the power of scent, and science helps explain it. Our sense of smell behaves differently from our other senses, traveling directly to our brain’s limbic system, which controls emotion and memory. Which is why smelling a particular perfume can stir romantic passion or a whiff of gardenias may reconnect us to a chapter from our past.

“Scent is so personal,” said Alex Schneider, coordinator of Visitor Events & Programs at the Garden. “It can be emotive, mentally transporting us to a time and place in our lives that we may have forgotten, or evoking special memories of someone who's no longer around.”

People have been harnessing scents from nature since antiquity. Incense was likely the first iteration, with tree resins such as frankincense or sandalwood burnt upward to praise the deities. As distillation techniques evolved through the ages, petals, seeds, leaves, and bark were combined with animal fats, oils, and/or water to expand production and allow perfumes a wider following—starting with royalty, then the upper classes, and finally trickling down to the rest of us.

The perfume-making process was painstaking through the mid-nineteenth century. A major breakthrough in some parts of the world arrived in 1866, when scientists were able to isolate molecules and duplicate them as synthetic chemicals. Combining synthetics with natural ingredients has allowed fragrances to become more complex and less expensive.

Just as many of the scents of ancient times remain popular in the U.S. today—a contemporary list of favorites would also include lilac, hyacinth, lavender, peonies, and citrus blossoms—their purpose hasn’t changed that much.

“Perfume (in ancient times) was used to anoint the body, improve its scent, or even seduce someone with a specific fragrance,” said Schneider, whose academic background is in classic archaeology.

Indeed, the siren call of perfume has long been a way to pursue romantic love. Legend has it that Cleopatra ordered the sails of her ship coated in fragrant oils so the wind would carry her trademark fragrance to reach Mark Antony before she arrived. But fragrances’ allure isn’t limited to romance. Scents can conjure up love in its myriad forms, as our accompanying video demonstrates.

“Basil evokes nostalgic feelings for me of my grandmother and father gardening,” said Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, where she oversees several varieties of the popular Mediterranean herb.

Hilgenberg also is captivated by the soothing power of basil’s scent. “Putting cut basil stems in water is kitchen aromatherapy,” she said. “The fragrance is calming and nurturing. It just exudes wellness.” Then there’s the irresistible culinary draw, especially during the summer harvest. “If I smell basil, my mouth starts to water,” Hilgenberg said, “because I know the tomatoes can’t be far behind.”