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The Scent Garden

Today’s guest speaker is Sasha Sharma, Science Technical Writing Intern for the Davis Cemetery District:

On a warm spring day at the Davis Cemetery District’s grounds, it’s hard to miss the luscious colors that mingle into vivid ephemeral rainbows under a lazy sun and invite passers-by into the quiet sanctuary of wafting aromas, gently swaying oaks, and softly humming moths’ wings. The lush green expanse, established almost 155 years ago in the year 1855, covers nearly 28 acres and continues to be a source of inspiration for photographers and gardening enthusiasts alike. Once the cornerstone of “Davisville”, which has now evolved into the city of Davis, the cemetery grounds boast of a variety of scent gardens, perennial gardens, and burgeoning copses which have lived to see several generations pass underneath their majestic branches. The lavish palette of colors in the gardens – the rose’s velvety red, the lavender’s deep purple – is only enhanced by the age-old statues, the shrouded pillars, and the Chinese river dragons that give the quiet sanctuary an identity all its own.

The Davis Cemetery is more than just a historic park. Indeed, it is an undercover crown jewel of Davis’s efforts to preserve the environment. The cemetery, besides providing shelter to over 50 species of birds, makes efficient use of on-site composting, organic fertilization methods, solar power, and integrated pest management. Perhaps one of the more ecologically important features of the cemetery is the integrated pest management system, which helps conserve the soil’s fertility by cutting the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides.  The list of the cemetery’s successful ecological measures continues as it provides home to an ancient swale which is, in effect, nature’s water recycling system at work. The swale, which had become endangered over decades with the rising heat and development of the area, has been restored with native grasses and sedges.

An ecologically efficient, aesthetically pleasing water fountain sets the scene for a journey through this vast expanse of interlacing palettes of colors and fragrances. A sweeping look across the cemetery grounds is enough to attest to its status as a quiet and exceptionally beautiful sanctuary. But despite its age-old oaks and beautiful statues that, at first, attract the visitors’ attention, it is the scent gardens with their sweetly beckoning aromas that truly set the cemetery landscape apart. In his book, Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury’s protagonist, Guy Montag, escapes a ruinous war and it is the fragrance, emanating from the flora that surrounds him, that revives his spirits:

There was a smell like carnations from the yard next door. He put down his hand and felt a weed rise up like a child brushing him. His fingers smelled of licorice. He stood breathing, and the more he breathed the land, the more he was filled up with all the details of the land. He was not empty. There was more than enough here to fill him. There would always be more than enough”.

Indeed, these words only reaffirm the unique place held by these fragrances that drift along lazily on a spring day. As flowers bloom, they lay forth a bouquet of lilting scents and scintillating colors, courting pollinators: the buzzing wasps, the sweet-voiced birds, the butterflies and other “involuntary” pollinators, often simultaneously repelling nectar “thieves” and undesirable insects. It is not often that such an amalgam of whimsically enchanting aromas is found in one place, but the scent gardens here at the Davis Cemetery are home to a remarkable seventeen distinct scents, ranging from fresh, sweet lavender to the strong smell of the curry plant, to the gently assertive caraway thyme, and the more exotic but perhaps the most delicious – chocolate mint.

The cemetery’s scent gardens, while in plain sight, have remained somewhat hidden from general awareness, tucked into two small copings in the older historical area of the cemetery, but slowly both sighted and non-sighted visitors have begun to take note of the gardens. As spring approaches, the plants in these gardens bloom with an abundant recklessness, producing spectacularly radiant effects. The colors and the aromas of these scent gardens, besides their role as attractors for pollinators and other desirable insects, are enough to mesmerize any visitor and hold him captive for hours. Beyond the scents or the vibrant colors themselves, their powers to evoke strong memories and emotions make these scent gardens doubly special.

This peculiar link between our most prized memories and emotions and these scent gardens has been mapped, succinctly, by authors Schilling et al. in the paper “Investigation of Odors in the Fragrance Industry”. Of our genetic code, approximately 3% is dedicated to olfactory senses. Our olfactory senses convert these little breaths of wafting aromas into electrical signals which are eventually bound to our limbic system – the collective name given to the part of the brain “central to our emotions and motivations…where memories, emotions, and odors converge…” (Hanson 8). Our intangibly intricate relationship to scents only intensifies the beauty of these gardens.

On the other hand however, little is known about the complexity of these scents themselves; and despite the simplistic solution that pollination offers, it is clear that these scents fulfill more than that singular role. Author Suzy Bales’ A Garden of Fragrance perhaps faults this narrow explanation the best: “Flowers that are self-pollinating, such as snapdragons, do not need insects for fertilization; they guard against intruders with the closed mouth of their flowers and are naturally scentless. Why, then, does the trio of hybrid snapdragons – ‘Super Jet’, ‘Vanguard’, and ‘Venus’ bred in 1963 – boast a sweet clove scent?” (Bales XVIII). In these lines, Bales questions the scents-for-pollination-only justification, indicating its limitations as a scientific theory. “Get a Whiff of This” proclaims the double entendre that introduces her book; it is in fact a cautionary prelude to understanding the complexity of scent gardens.

The author proceeds to explain that, despite more than thousands of years of use of floral scents, we have yet to truly penetrate the mystery of these sweet smells that beckon us forth and help us revive lost memories and deep seated emotions. Perhaps the best explanation comes from the paper Investigation of Odors in the Fragrance Industry. The authors identify floral scents as nature’s way of ‘communication’; “It appears that in nature communication through chemical signals, and in particular via volatiles, has been crucial from the dawn of time” (Schilling 136). Despite this small stepping stone of understanding, authors Schilling, Bales and others are amenable to the fact that the “science of smell” is not a certain science (Schilling 141). The mystery of floral scents remains just out of reach as these gardens beckon us forth, tantalizing researchers and gardening enthusiasts alike.      

With so little known of this whimsical aspect of flora, the scent gardens at the Davis Cemetery District provide a wonderful opportunity for visitors to observe these exceptional plants. As spring arrives, it sprinkles its sweet magic over the seeds of hard work here at the Davis Cemetery. These plants seem to sing of a time and place far away from the humdrum of the everyday mundane, often offering the gift of lost memories and a spiritually invigorating experience.

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