The Stopwatch Gardener

A gardening blog from Sheila M. Averbuch

The unbearable sweetness of hyacinths


Click for larger imageI’ve spent the last few days experimenting with the right place for these forced hyacinths, which went into pots last autumn. On the desk was too much. In the windowsill was too much. At the opposite end of the house near the back door is just about right. It’s not just that the scent is inescapable — it’s the fierce sweetness of it, like being force-fed a pint of syrup.

Topping my list for what I want from the garden is fragrance, so it’s odd that some of the most common flower scents repulse me. This summer I’ll be cutting every sweet pea in the garden again and handing them over the wall to my neighbour Hilary, for much the same reason — a choking sweetness that I cannot love. I don’t know many other people with a cottagey garden who will admit to hating the scent of sweet peas: if you’re one of them, do me a favour and speak up.

My top ten thrilling flower scents — and I don’t grow all of these — have to be daphne, rhododendron luteum, phlox, nicotiana, zalutiniskaya, lilies, pinks, monarda, lavender (English, not the resinous French), and above all, roses.

I shouldn’t throw roses into that mix because their scent, for me, is less a preference and more a requirement for healthy mental functioning. The roseless months of the year are dark ones, and I remember standing at the rose border by the top of the lovely Inveresk Lodge Garden last June, looking at a rugosa rose, the first on the bush, just opening. Do you ever have moments that become a lasting, living image? Before leaning into it I stopped and thought, right, here’s what I’ve been waiting these months for. The scent was — well, you know what it was. Perfection.

These hyacinths are becoming more tolerable now — my brain is beginning to ignore the shouting scent picked up by my nose — and they do point the way out of this Scottish winter towards spring, so they can stay. At a distance.

What are your thrilling garden scents? Are there flowers you can’t take, or feel you “should” like, but don’t?

posted under Bulbs, Roses
14 Comments to

“The unbearable sweetness of hyacinths”

  1. On February 1st, 2010 at 9:58 pm Nell Jean Says:

    I put my hyacinths away from where I’ll be, so I just get the whiff as I pass by on the way out the door, or coming in.

    Sweet peas. I have a craving for sweet peas that goes back to when I was four. I was insanely jealous of another child who was a flower girl in a wedding. I didn’t want a pretty dress and long curls, I had those. I WANTED that sweet pea corsage the aunts pinned on her. Actually the fragrance of sweet peas is the perfume of an old lady. I forgot to ask her its name.

    Don’t you think that Trumpet lilies smell a lot like Noxema skin cream? It’s a teenage memory and I’m transported to my pretty blond cousin’s room.

  2. On February 2nd, 2010 at 12:41 am Deborah at Kilbourne Grove Says:

    When they were going to throw away a flat of forced hyacinth bulbs at the flower shop where I work, I said that I would take them. The main flower was finished, but there were plenty of small side shoots in flower. I drove them up to Kilbourne Grove, on a cold, snowy day in March. At first it wasn’t to bad, but I had a wicked headache from the smell by the time I got there.
    My favourite smell would be lily of the valley, I just love them.

  3. On February 2nd, 2010 at 7:20 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Nell – I haven’t even thought about Noxema in years…not available here in Scotland! Those lilies do have a certain tang in the smell, like an ointment, but one stem in a vase in the hallway here perfumes the house for a week…I adore them.

    Deborah – After I went to bed last night & thought, DOH, should have put lily of the valley on the list! That is one amazing scent. Mine have done so poorly in the garden; I put them in a raised bed, just in case they spread uncontrollably, but no spreading at all.

    Thanks both for leaving your views!

  4. On February 3rd, 2010 at 4:30 am Manda Says:

    I can’t smell anything sweet. Sniff a rose all day long and all I’ll be smelling is the grassy scent of all plants. So my favorite smells are the citrus and minty herbs on the walk way. But those, you have to actually step on to get anything.

  5. On February 3rd, 2010 at 9:26 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Hi Manda. There’s one rose, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which I’m convinced I’m not smelling completely — all I really get is that grassy scent you mentioned. It’s a pity roses can’t make their way into your brain; I find them very satisfying. I had a friend in Ireland who fell off a fence when she was a little girl and lost all sense of smell.

  6. On February 5th, 2010 at 2:49 pm Amy/GoAway, I'm Gardening! Says:

    What a great blog design…i love it! I am glad I found your blog and will be happt to visit again.

  7. On February 5th, 2010 at 3:25 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Thanks Amy — the guys at Fission Creative did it for me, I take no credit!

  8. On March 10th, 2012 at 3:39 pm Lisa Says:

    I noticed this is an old posting but I will respond anyway. I’ve been searching the web looking for such a subject. Last night I had such a terrible headache from being in a car, for about one hour, with a small bouquet of sweet peas. I’ve always loved the smell of Sweet peas but I find that I can’t be take more than a few whiffs of them before I start feeling sick.

  9. On March 12th, 2012 at 9:12 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Dear Lisa – nice to know I’m not the only person who can’t stand the smell of sweet peas. One thing I’ve discovered is that the hyacinths only start to smell sickly when they are on the verge of going off. I wonder if it is the same with sweet peas? My daughter grew some sweet peas last year and they were some of the first I’ve ever smelled that were not sickly; we’ve saved some seeds and I hope we managed to save some of those ones!

  10. On March 5th, 2017 at 1:51 am Marci Says:

    Can’t stand hyacinths smell. It’s horrible. They are beautiful though. I got a vase with them, and when I smelled.. OMG. After, I asked my son to smell them and tell me what he thinks. He said they smell fine. The smell took over the room and I had to use mask. I’ll have to find another home for them. Too strong… too bad… sorry.

  11. On January 6th, 2018 at 4:41 pm b.harrison Says:

    My Daughter gave me a pot of hyacinths before Christmas and they are in flower now and smell divine.However I have been quite poorly for two weeks and have sat in the same room as the bulbs and not improving at all .Today I have been tidying my craft room and have felt a lot better.I came back down to have a drink in the same room as the bulbs and feel absolutely dreadful.I feel really sick and my head is banging , it just dawned on me that it must be the bulbs ….they are now on the front doorstep where everyone can enjoy them without me feeling so I’ll .I have the same problem with Lillie’s .

  12. On April 25th, 2018 at 9:51 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Yes some folks find them just unbearable – I am glad you found the source of the problem & removed it!

  13. On December 30th, 2020 at 6:43 pm Ashe Says:

    I thought I was the only person in the world that can’t stand hyacinth fragrance. Apparently not. I wish I could enjoy it. They are so pretty, but no thanks. It gives me a headache as does lavender. That smells like insecticide to me.
    Some lilies make me sneeze.

    Give me lilac, mint, mock orange, roses (that actually smell), daffodils and many more and I’ll be putty in your hands.

  14. On January 5th, 2021 at 12:39 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    I am ok with hyacinth smell when they are very slight and very new: I find it ages and gets worse when the flower has been open a while. Also, if I am extra desperate for springtime, I welcome the smell, but in microsmall doses.

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