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The Nose Knows

It’s back. That delicate scent of honeysuckle and wild rose, of cut grass and clover; it’s the welcome smell of summer. We didn’t even know we missed it until that first, rich breath of summer sun.

The bees are busy, the birds are clamoring and the children, I’m told by those with young ones, are restless and wild. Sights and sounds help orchestrate our internal selves; but none so strong as smell.

Cutting the grass the other day, I got a deep whiff of a smell that took me directly back to the summer of my youth; somehow in that one breath all the long, carefree, adventure awaiting days came back to me. So different then my current list of weed-pulling, trimming, shopping, organizing, etc., in that one whiff I could smell possibility.

Remember that?

My younger self would have just plucked one of those clusters of tiny white flowers and tucked it behind an ear. My older self googled this small tree that grows outside my fence and found out that it’s a tea olive tree (Osmanthus fragrans). This small evergreen tree has amazing fragrant flowers that can bloom several times a year.

Nothing to really look at, the tea olive is sometimes called a sweet olive for the delicious perfume of the flower clusters that smell something like a peach or orange scent. It must have naturalized by the river house my grandparents took us to each summer. I can’t say I remembered it until I did.

Smell is like that. According to, incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.

In our modern landscapes we usually gravitate to visual appeal, and while I wouldn’t recommend the tea olive as a landscape specimen for its looks, I’m thrilled to have one on the fence line and to have that instant memory of the joy of summertime and to remember to relax, watch the fireflies and tuck a fragrant flower behind my ear.

Do you have a favorite smell memory? I'd love to hear about it.

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