The evening ambiance was typical for late October in the The Wet Tropics of Northern Australia . There had been a light rainshower earlier which left the garden with a dewy presence. The pathways and adjacent bitumen road were steaming with that spirit-like mist that wafts around languidly. The atmosphere was now warm and moisture laden. A perfect vector for the perfumery of the Tropical Garden.
As if carried to our senses by a spirit, the aromatics of our garden began to make themselves known.
“Can you smell the ylang ylang?”
my wife Fairlie asked, as we sat comfortably relaxing on the lawned area. Indeed the 20m (65 foot) high Cananga odorata was dropping its blooms around us. I have often noted the perfume from this tree will come in waves, descending from the canopy above and washing over the garden like a spell. How wonderful, I thought, to not only enjoy a garden for its visual feast, but also be delighted by its heady scents.
A notable attribute of warm, humid air is the ability to carry and hold fragrance. For this reason, tropical gardening offers us the opportunity to plant stunningly exotic species not only for visual impact but also for pleasuring of the olfactory senses.
Common in tropical regions, the Cananga tree, along with frangipani, is iconic when one conjures imagery of perfumed evenings on a tropical Island. The fragrance of Ylang-Ylang is described as:
“rich and deep with base notes of rubber and custard, and bright with hints of jasmine and neroli”.
I love the way that fragrance houses use musical metaphors to define a scent. The essential oil is well known for its use in famous perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 and regarded as an aphrodisiac by South Sea Islanders. How lovely that the Indonesian custom of spreading the flowers over the bed of newlywed couples has persisted to this day. We often collect a bowl of blooms which when allowed to dry, will a retain a characteristic seductive scent for two months.
Arguably one of the most exquisite perfumes on a warm evening in the Tropics comes from a medium sized tree with origins in Tropical East Africa. Tabernaemontana pachysiphon can grow to around 12m (40 feet) high and displays regular flushes of white pinwheel-like blooms that exude a delicious combination of vanilla and gardenia with an overlay of orange blossom and cinnamon spice. So delicious you wish you could eat it. Being a member of the Apocynaceae family, this is not to be tried as the white milky sap is toxic.
Carried on a breeze, the perfume can be detected 50 meters away and our naturestrip specimen is often appreciated by those taking their evening walk. Still fairly uncommon in cultivation, I suspect that this tree will soon become a popular addition to the tropical climate garden.
On occasion, the first indication we have that a plant is flowering is from the drifting perfume. Such is often the case with both cultivated and wild rainforest specimens of the native Phaleria clerodendron or ‘Scented Daphne’. Although this small tree is a spectacular sight when in full bloom, the fragrance permeating the garden is the real star. I liken the perfume to a perfect olfactory facsimile of a well prepared Pina Colada. The sweet pineapple and coconut scent fused with a hint of spice is mouth watering. I swear I can almost detect some rum in there too! The picked tubular blooms don’t last long but placed on the dinner table while enjoying a Thai Curry makes for a pleasant experience.
The tropical garden is often characterized by dramatic lush foliage with members of the Zingerberaceae or ginger family prominently represented. Along with producing some spectacular floral displays and providing edible, spicey rhizomes and seed , what is perhaps less appreciated is the aromatic properties of their foliage. Brushing past, the arching leaves of Elettaria cardamomum or cardamon when planted adjacent to pathways, releases into the air a scented blend of camphor and ginger root. Crushing a leaf and taking a draft of the aroma does nothing less than transport you to an exotic, far-away spice market. Cheapest holiday I’ll ever take! The much loved ‘Beehive Gingers’ also have a similar gingery scent when disturbed.
All this talk of delicious perfumes needs to be tempered a touch. To be fair and balanced, it would be remiss of me not to mention the other end of the botanical aromatic spectrum. For there are indeed a plethora of not so pleasant, pungent aromas to be experienced. For example, hanging in the humid atmosphere around springtime, one can detect the not so subtle aroma of old socks spliced with wet dog. Releasing its villainous aroma into the warm breeze, Terminalia catappa or ‘Beach Almond’ is a very common tree throughout tropical regions. Visitors in the vicinity of a flowering specimen often ‘amused’ by its aromatic display.
As if to balance good with evil, the Gustavia superba tree from Colombian regions has one of the most impressive cauliflorus (along the stems and trunk) floral displays with large, waxy blooms possessing a strong fragrance reminiscent of sugary water-lily. A synthetic version of the aroma is now produced for the perfume industry instead of using harvested blooms. But its local common names of ‘Stinkwood” and ‘Corpse Tree’ are a hint to the tree’s clandestine secret. Once its timber is cut, split or damaged a putrid, foetid aroma is released. Not a problem, I suppose…… until storm season!
Perhaps the start of Act 1, Scene 6 of Macbeth where Duncan exclaims:
“This Castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses”,
is an appropriate quote when exploring a Wet Tropics garden. Suspended in the warm, humid breeze are some of the most celebrated fragrance notes. Gardenia, frangipani, stephanotis, coconut oil and ripe mango are but a few that are roundly adored. Many more await.