One of my most precious memories from childhood is the green house. Dad had a Victorian style green house with an underground heater and roof opening windows. The floor was packed earth with a central cement pathway and 2 cement work benches either side so that plants needing shade could be placed according to their need. The green house was divided into 3 sections.
Tomato plants in the first section, in the middle section geraniums, Dad used to grow annuals from seed every year and display beautiful flower borders every year, this is where things were grown from seed before going out to cold frames. Vegetable seeds were also grown here, there were always brown envelopes with hand written labels in waxy pencil you used to unwind.
The end section was the most special for me. There was a bird of paradise flower rammed into a massive pot, the flowers lasted for weeks and I loved checking whether the blue crests were coming next or the orange, sometimes we had these cut and brought them into the house, they needed help to open out in the same way as they would in the greenhouse.
The end house had the most heady scents and exotic flowers. A stephanotis with a very heavy, sweet almost sickly smell. Overhead in the end two houses grew two grape vines, one white, one red. They were small grapes as the environment was quite cold to grow them really ,but I spent hours watching Dad prune and thin the grapes and leaves, mourning the loss of so much fruit but understanding I would only get edible food if it was done.
As a little girl going into the green house was challenging, the warm damp air took your breath away on entering. I’m not asthmatic but the air was so different to outside that sometimes breathing ability took a while to come back.
Dad used to shoot rabbits and get me to use the tails with him to pollinate the tomato plants by hand, teaching me male and female flowers and how to pollinate to get the best fruiting. Gardeners at this point might know what I’m talking about, I don’t.
The smell of the tomato house was of dark earth, and damp peat, in later years it would smell of tortoise pooh, as this is where the tortoise lived for many years.
The earth smell mixed with the sharp, spicy smell of tomato leaves. There is nothing like picking tomatoes smelling of their leaves and frying them straight away, they have a sweet earthiness mixed with that leaf smell which adds so much to the taste experience.
My daughters and I went on holiday after dad died and I rekindled my interest in gardens. We visited a number of green houses in old heritage houses and Victorian walled gardens, I saw where Dad got his ideas for heating and managing over -heating, some of the places were familiar in the way they were laid out or managed.
I have never found the smell that I seek. I then began to think about the element of smell in reminiscence and grief.
Toward the end of Dads life, I tried to do reminiscence with him and as I couldn’t get him out doors, I used perfumed hand and body moisturisers from health shops. I googled using aromatherapy essential oils, but chose not to use them as they are often too powerful for those at end of life and I didn’t want to experiment with my fragile parents.
I wanted to manage my stress and did this with hard core gardening, but I have used essential oils in the past and thought I would restart. I wanted to re- create aspects of the geranium smell to have aromatically at home, or for the smell of the tomatoes and other well-loved smells.
This had me also thinking about other uses for essential oils for grief.
Over the years I have rekindled a liking for lavender, although it is not my favourite. It has happy memories for me.
We can sit with a collection of bottles of essential oils with our eyes closed and smell each one, writing down what we think of. Usually we will all have a different relationship with each smell.
Essential oils are said to have specific beneficial effects. Aroma-therapists advise science can now evidence this. I chose to use essential oils, not because I specifically wanted any benefit, I was looking for the smells of reminiscence, any health benefits were more secondary. I tried using perfumed toiletries, but they never smelt quite how I wanted. Over time with my gardening, I became more concerned about the environmental impact of what we use.
I wanted responsibly sourced household cleaners and scents. Things that my family and I put on our skin had to be safe and have minimal man-made chemicals, I wanted to know what the effects were of what we used. I also wanted to create my own scents for soaps, atomisers and body oils, I wanted to experiment and smell real plants, without having to be constrained by someone else’s idea of scent and what I may or may not like or wish for.
I wasn’t confident and didn’t have any oils. I had tried aromatherapy years ago and used oils intermittently over the years in limited ways, but on having children most of my equipment had become broken by small inquisitive hands and oils had become rancid and thrown away.
I started buying blends initially to get an idea, I bought from Neil’s Yard. A friend introduced me to Doterra. I quite liked some of the blends but my friend had pots to allow people to try different oils, so I used some of these to amend to my taste.
I bought a blend designed to help with grief. I loved it. It calmed me and allowed my head to stop racing, I was able to be restful. I did cry at times. My husband had unresolved grief issues of his own and appeared to react rapidly, experiencing extreme grief response, being somewhat grumpy and confrontational as well as reflective and reassurance seeking at the same time.
We stopped using that for a while. I got my comeuppance later when using frankincense a few weeks later, cried for 8 hours, not usual. I have started experimenting with different oils, at the moment I’m leaning toward frankincense, myrrh, lime, peppermint, bergamot, lavender and roman camomile and rose in different combinations, at times with other things. Although I started out wanting tomato, grape leaf and geranium I haven’t got there yet, but as the child of a serious gardener, who introduced me to a plethora of plant life, any scent is precious and has a place in the memory.
The main role of scent isn’t just for our past though, it’s there for our present and will also be in our future. Scent is part of us, it can stimulate, calm, reassure and disgust us. Pure plant scent is a trilogy for us to behold as we experience life’s ups and downs.