This week on my ride home I was overwhelmed by the sweet aroma of Hawthorn Blossom.
It fills the air and I find it completely intoxicating. It's as if Spring is telling me that I need to breathe and to breathe deeply. Sweet, delicious marzipan-like I just can't get enough of it. It got me thinking about how most of the associations we have with Spring are visual ones: the sudden greening of the landscape, the carpets of bluebells in the woods and these days the great lolloping sweeps of yellow dominating the landscape when the Oilseed Rape comes into flower. These days perhaps more than in days gone by the world seems increasingly visual - from television to smartphones which then draw us into the world of instagram, pinterest and suchlike. The visual is obvious to us and seems to be the first point on which we judge and assess. Smell by contrast seems to come in subliminally and influence us more subtly. Sometimes of course the situation can be reversed; we smell the food cooking in the kitchen long before we get to see it. Smell goes straight to the gut. Current understanding of the brain supports all of this as well with visual senses and auditory senses topping the charts.
One thing that I remember noticing in the first few years of foraging was how my sense of smell shifted. It definitely got better. I don't know what the specific neurological mechanics would be behind this but I do know that by exercising my sense of smell it got better. Maybe the brain starts to pay more attention to those signals or maybe it goes deeper than that. I'm sure that it's probably quite common in other jobs; if you are a chef for example then your sense of taste and smell must become more finely tuned. If you're a musician then through continual practice and (again) exercising your sense of hearing you become better attuned to the fine details. By my third year of foraging I recall smelling a patch of nettles in the distance, conversely I remember at the start of those 3 years having no idea what nettles smell like.
So as I cycled along taking deep sweet floral lungfuls of Spring-scented air I got thinking about those flowers and about aroma. The thought that came to me is that those scents and aromas are not for us. They're not really for our benefit. I don't think that we humans have actually been around long enough for plants to have taken very much notice of us. In the great dance of nature plants are well and truly coupled with insects. The flowers which are on display now and into the Summer are there to attract and impress insects who will come to feed on sweet nectar and in return will carry pollen from one flower to the next. And there is another side to this plant-insect dance, it's not all about attraction and often plants are just as hard at work trying to deter the unwanted attentions of some insects. The strong volatile oils which are responsible for aromatics and flavour compounds are usually a plants defence mechanism. So here is another area in which something which we perceive in the plants (the aroma of Wild Fennel or the mustard in Wild Watercress for example) is not there for our benefit but rather to keep those tiny plant predators at bay. If I'm continuing the metaphor then plants have to wear one perfume to attract and another to deter when they go to the dance. I'm not quite sure where we fit into that.. we're sort of like the giant who comes along, thinks that the bad smell is nice and then eats them.