Entrance to the Jardin botanique Roger-Van den Hende.

A few days ago, I visited my local botanical garden, the Jardin botanique Roger-Van den Hende, for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been closed all spring and summer, only opening in mid-September. It’s a garden I normally visit a dozen times each summer, a place where I go to relax, soak up a bit of ambiance, discover new plants and forget about any frustrations. So, you can imagine I was eager to visit. 

Yes, the sign is in French (I live in Québec), but the symbols are quite clear. Among others, you have to wear a mask.

The sign at the entrance warned about the usual COVID restrictions: social distancing, hand-washing, etc. and, most notably, a mask was to be worn at all times. So, I put on my mask (I now keep one in my pocket at all times) and off I went on sort of a grand tour of the garden. 

Clearly, some things had not been taken care of as usual. In particular, the annuals that usually make up a major part of the display gardens and as well as a large trial area on one side had never been planted. And the heart of the garden is a systematic garden where herbaceous plants are grouped by families and annuals were lacking there as well, except for those that had self-sowed.

The vegetable garden, which would normally be overflowing by September, was essentially empty, except for a horde of self-sown pea plants.

There was a giant mosaiculture butterfly, its wings bare and brown, never having been filled with the usual tiny, trimmed, brilliantly hued annuals that gave it is color. Oddly, young birch trees had germinated on each wing.

That said, the perennials, trees and shrubs were there, there were vines all over the long pergola, the flowery brook was flowing and scattered with fall flowers, etc. 

There weren’t many people, but then, the Garden hadn’t really publicized its reopening to any extent. I counted 5 altogether, including a couple I stopped to talk with. I didn’t know their names, but had seen them before … probably in this very garden. 

At any rate, in gardens, you talk readily to strangers. There’s a sort of comradeship among garden lovers that allows them to converse freely in a garden, even with people they’ve never met. We did, of course, maintain the proper social distance.

They felt the garden looked neglected. I felt that, on the whole, considering the circumstances (the Garden hadn’t be able to hire its usual summer staff of students, and only three gardeners had had to try to maintain it over the summer), it was in pretty good shape. We all agreed it was wonderful to be in the garden again after such a long absence. 

Something Missing

As I wandered about, bending down to check a label here and there, going off one way or another depending on what caught my eye, the sort of thing you do in a garden you’re familiar with, yet is still packed with surprises, I had this strange feeling that something was missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It just didn’t feel right somehow. It was like I was seeing it though a mirror. Even as I ambled through the rose garden, looking to see which varieties had survived the winter, the cause of the difference didn’t really register. 

It was only as I was leaving the shade garden, towards the end of my visit, that it struck me. 

This is probably sweet cecily (Myrrhis odoratus), but since I couldn’t smell the leaves, I wasn’t sure of the identification.

I was looking at an umbellifer with deeply cut green foliage and wondering whether it was sweet cecily (Myrrhis odoratus). With no visible label and given how much one umbellifer can look like another, I wasn’t sure, so I bent down to rub and sniff the leaves (as the name suggests, sweet cecily has a sugary licorice scent) … only to discover I couldn’t. The mask was keeping me from smelling anything. 

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

I looked up and noticed I was standing right near a large witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in full bloom, mixing its curiously crinkled yellow flowers with fading foliage. Normally, I would have noticed its intense sweet scent before I even saw it, but not today. I checked around, then, seeing no one nearby, pulled the mask down below my nose for just a second, and took a deep sniff. Yes, there it was! The intoxicating perfume I was used to. 

What had been missing, from the beginning of the visit, was the scent: the scent of a garden.

Gardens Have a Scent

I wonder if this eau de toilette does indeed smell like a garden? Photo: Parfumo

I’d never really noticed that gardens had a scent per se, not until that day. And clearly, it’s not a constant flowery scent, something you could put your finger on, but a very slight odor that changes with the seasons and, indeed, the weather. But I now realized they do have a scent. 

I should have, from the beginning of the visit, been smelling autumn leaves and moist earth and freshly mown lawn and fallen apples and a mix of plant odors. Instead, I’d been smelling “eau de mask” with a hint of laundry detergent (I was wearing a reusable one), a perfume I definitely really notice when I first put the mask on, then forget about.

That was why the entire garden visit had seemed like a strangely otherworldly experience, as if I were a ghost not quite part of the world around me. Or as if I was missing something small but vital. 

Who knew I was so attached to scents? But, apparently, I am. And maybe you are too.

Honestly, I don’t know why the Garden insists on visitors wearing masks. Six people spread over 6 hectares (15 acres), and in the open air at that, was certainly not a crowd situation where the risk of spreading a virus was rife. But I’ll follow the rule. 

Still, I’ll look forward to the day when I can visit the garden mask free and hume its beauty as well as seeing it.

I’m going back to the garden today. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll lower my mask for a few seconds and take a deep breath!

Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos by laidbackgardener.blog

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

7 comments on “The Scent of a Garden

  1. I’ve been wearing a mask for seven months now and will continue to do so, but it does affect so many things that we took for granted. Smelling and smiling are two that I miss.

  2. Scent is so important to understanding plants and places and food. The fact you can appreciate the smell when you take off your mask shows you healthy as it goes if you contract covid!
    Let’s hope a vaccine sets us all free again very soon!

  3. I hadn’t noticed the mask depriving me of my sense of smell, but I usually wear it in public buildings, not gardens. Thank goodness I don’t have to wear it in my own garden!

  4. At least we can smell the scents in our own gardens .. but the clock is ticking for the winter count down now .. we are all tired of the restrictions but it is for the greater good .. so we just have to comply and enjoy what we can , when we can .. planting bulbs in the next few weeks will have me close to the soil for the last time this year .. I really want to enjoy that.

  5. We need not wear masks at work, because we encounter almost no one out there nowadays anyway. Floral fragrance is minimal here, but the aroma of the forest should become more prominent as autumn weather replaces arid summer weather. It is unpleasant to know that no one is here to appreciate the landscapes. A neglected botanical garden would be even more unpleasant for those who still work there.

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