There are a few things in life where you can almost guarantee that getting what you're pursuing, what you yearn for, will result, not in disappointment, not in satisfaction, but in the simple ending of the pleasures of desire.
It's the violet, viola odorata, which carries the dilemma one ironic step further, eliminating the chemical receptors in the nose as its scent is inhaled. It leaves you longing, powerless even to sense what you're longing for. If it were not so sweet it would be bitter.
"When violet nosegays were at the height of fashion around the turn of the century
(the 19th), young ladies were carefully coached on violet-smelling techniques.
Not only was a long, deep inhalation crude and vulgar, it also fatigued a young
lady's scent receptors more rapidly than a series of short, dainty sniffs. At the
same time, the medical profession worried that the stimulation from a violet nosegay
might affect one's health."
So speaks Tovah Martin from her 1976 book about fragrant plants for indoor gardens - The Essence Of Paradise. The whole book could be bad for your health. It fills you with desire for conservatories, green-houses and porches swooning with scent. I recommend it, for intelligent writing, comprehensiveness and detailed hints and tips on growing techniques. She praises citrus plants for unfailingly pleasing everyone with their scents, but points out that they are very difficult to keep in good health for long periods inside. I like books that don't pretend everything is easy.
Back to those violets. I tried the sniffing instructions with an ordinary wild outdoor violet,. They grow and flower every year, down our stony shared urban track in England. They're hard up against a wall, regularly visited by dogs and fight against vinca and scrubby grasses.
You can hardly see them in this picture, though there are dozens of them, flowering their little hearts out, unlike their seedlings, found in every garden, which don't seem to bother, leafy and happy to increase with stranger methods of hidden reproduction.
It must be the sun, the stoniness, and the lack of all luxury which causes these particular violets to flower so. I sniff and sniff, daintily and youthfully, never quite getting enough, never quite getting none. I try again a few minutes later - nothing at all. My desire is anaesthetised by repetition, not quenched by achievement. For the moment it's gone, that enhanced perception, that delicious state.
As children we enjoyed the occasional packet of Parma Violets. They were very small and tasted very strong. More than three or four would sicken you rather than wear out your receptors. I hunted them down in a sweetshop the other day and they have blown up to a remarkable, charmless size. Same taste though. An elusive Elysian allure annihilated in sugar.
One of the excellent things about garden fragrances is that there is no real hierarchy of conossieurship. Not one that can be pinned down anyway. Some people really can't smell things that seem strong to others, some people delight in things that others find pretty vile.
I could have sworn that everyone would love sarcococca, a most reliable, deliciously-scented little evergreen that pours its essence across the garden just about now. But not so, I planted it for someone who could not bear what she perceived as a catty scent, and there's no point in arguing about that. Myself, I love to work in a garden full of the sarcococca's sweetness, like another presence, not at all feline, wafting round me.
On the other hand, I have found it impossible to linger long in too foxy a garden. I don't mind an exciting gust, such as fritillaries provide, but years ago Margery Fish's old garden at East Lambrook Manor was smothered in phuopsis stylosa, a harmless, sweetly wild looking pink flower. The stench was astonishing, like a pack of wolves on heat. But some people seemed not to notice.
Pretty though it is, I have no plans to grow the clary sage, salvia sclarea, again. I could not get its stale and sweaty aroma out of my nasal passages. And an elderly, rather patrician lady of my acquaintance, who I thought would love them, reacted with violence and disgust to what she saw as the reek of scented geranium leaves when I attempted to entertain her with a visit to the vast greenhouse of a local stately home.
Hunting for an interesting experience, I tried many different kinds on her, as her face grew ever more appalled. I think she thought I might be genuinely crazy, maddened by those admittedly strong scents, each with their pungent geranium version of something else - lemon, nutmeg, rose, cloves, mint. Her main desire was to get right away, back to the Cuir De Russie.
To be honest, the inedible scented leaves I love most are few and clean-smelling, not mixed or musty. Prostanthera cuneata, a small curly-leaved, grey and white flowered antipodean is one. Then there's southernwood, Artemisia abrotanum, grey-leaved and feathery, old-fashioned and humble. Both have cheering medicinal healthy smells - you could rub them on your chest and feel better and nicer. Mostly, I like them round my legs as I garden; ready for release as I pass.
I have yet to be thrilled by the scent of chimonanthus fragrans, the wintersweet. In many ways that lets me off the hook - it's a shockingly dreary-looking shrub in midsummer, like a regular lilac. Shapeless too though I'm sure it could be managed better. Here it is in Milan, rather high up, but I found others I thrust my face into, tasting only a sour little nothing.
My most delightfully scented garden moments, when I've been unable to think of anything else, have been from those fragrances that rise in the air, almost breathed out, like waves that break over you. And they've often come from evergreen shrubs, my favourites for so many reasons. Osmanthus, Pittosporum tobira, Daphnes and Eleagnus are obvious. But the other pittosporums too, so exquisite a perfume exhales from their tiny black flowers in late summer - you just have to have the right moisture in the air, at the right time of day. Enough stillness, the perfect temperature, a certain amount of enclosure: fragrance drifting like a gift, like a vagary. You can aim for it, but you can never be sure. And that makes for intermittent reinforcement, the most binding stimulus to desire.
So, to the song. I Want You, from the album Blonde on Blonde. A series of verses detailing some off-kilter transactions, personalities and situations - nothing making a lot of sense. The words and music are complicated and speedy, dancing around in the background. And then in comes the urgent, repeated refrain, cutting across with a clear and compelling voice, expressing a kind of tasteful lust, again and again, with the same intonation, as though slightly possessed or brainless and lost to reason.
Well, we all know the sensation, the sweetness and excitement of desire, which makes everything else fade away. The song celebrates the feeling, spinning it out and giving it weight, force and steadiness against the distracting chit-chat in the background.
But firmness and solidity are not attributes of desire. Like hunger or thirst, it's a changeable feeling you move through, hopefully to some sort of resolution. It's a state of transition, you cannot pin it down and make it stick. That would be a kind of ultimate fantasy, if not a kind of hell.
There is a version of the song on the At Budokan album where the yearning refrain is like an emotional howling at the moon. The song is slower. It feels less throw-away and more convincing. But I rather like the lighter focus on desire simply for its own sake in the Blonde on Blonde version and it suits my purposes, for it is the lustful, brain-free equivalent of the unassuageable longing inspired by some garden fragrances, floating around, floating away.
Here are some of my own favourite scent charms which held back the chaos in my old UK garden. All hardy here, they have seen me through the seasons of many years, coming round and round again, always welcome, ever retreating. Although I have no sentimentality about old gardens I have made, loved and lost these would be the perfumed elements I would yearn for, if such yearning seemed to have any point, or end.
I'll start with a cooking apple, I believe it to be Arthur Turner, famed for the size and beauty of its flowers. It smells of washed morning baby.
And here below are a couple of grandiflora magnolias. I would always have a few in the house throughout August and into September, taken from a pair of trees that outgrew their spaces and were eventually reduced to one. I would tell people the flowers smelt like lemons in a church, which they really do; cold, austere but perfectly ripe Sicilian lemons. See how unsentimental I am.
I would never plant this tree again, for the endless housework involved in clearing up its crackly eternal leaves. Magnolia watsonii is a much better bet and can fill a whole walled garden with the scent from one flower. But it's not a lemon in a church.
|Magnolia grandiflora Gallissoniere|