Flowers that can set you adrift on a sensory sojourn

Following a hectic month of shows and book tours, Fiann Ó Nualláin is taking some time to smell the roses. 
Flowers that can set you adrift on a sensory sojourn

I HAVE had a hectic few weeks; built two gardens at Bloom, which also means having to dismantle two gardens after the show — and I’ve been on the radio circuit plugging my book (Natural Cures for Common Ailments — don’t you know), which entails visiting many counties for in-studio conversations and conducting scratchy phone-ins to others and to European channels with one finger in the ear and two crossed hoping I heard the question right.

All stress, adrenalin and trying hard not to slip out an expletive or laugh inappropriately. Harder than you think when you are so frazzled after a sweltering Bloom with record visitors all keen to know about your garden with anxious anticipation or exuberant enthusiasm. It takes a while to ease back a gear.

So this morning I finally got a chance to have a cup of coffee that I could sip, not gulp, and take a slow wander around my garden, which surprisingly, was not worse for its recent neglect. One thing that caught me was the aroma of the garden. It had just rained and the world does smell a bit different after rain.

It’s hard to describe the smell sensation but fresh and calm — woosh, in an instant it just pulled any tension from my body and I got a bit light headed for a few seconds, then just as quickly I felt an intense sense of wellbeing — of being home and grounded.

Smell is perceived in the same part of the brain as emotions and memory so it is more than a perception of odour, it can transport you places. It can trigger an emotion, a memory or a state of being.

Surrounded by that fresh smell I was reminded that it is not just that the rain has washed away dirt and debris, but in the process of raining, ozone is brought into play and it deodorises the atmosphere. Nature is just cool. It does its thing and we reap its rewards.

It is said the sound of rain is relaxing and certainly to gardeners it’s a gift of one less chore to do — but listening to rain distracts the brain.

And it got me thinking about the garden fragrances that promote wellbeing. A few weeks back I wrote about reasons to keep a lawn and one of them was that the smell of cut grass lowers blood pressure and prompts a relaxation response. So after rain, that’s up there in the favs.

But you don’t have to get soaked or get busy to encounter relaxation responses in the garden, you can enjoy the natural aromatherapy of plants you already grow — or will be growing next week. Here is a list of my top ten.

The fragrant climber,‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ at Chelsea this year.
The fragrant climber,‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ at Chelsea this year.

1. Lavender (Lavandula spp)

There are hundreds of cultivars and varieties of lavender in all heights and shades to suit any garden or container gardener. All they require to thrive is good drainage and sun. The Latin name derives from Lavare, which means “to wash” as it was popular for centuries to bathe in and to wash clothes with ( yes ‘botanicals’ have been around a while) as well as wiping away bacteria and germs.

And, in line with the premise of this article, its fragrance helps wash away nervous exhaustion and restlessness while simultaneously increasing cognitive function and positive mental activity. It is the go-to fragrance in aromatherapy for depression, insomnia, fatigue and anxiety disorders. Inhaling your garden grown lavender triggers a slowdown in fast wave brain activity (excited thoughts, repetitive thinking etc.) and promotes a slower alpha brain wave activity that brings calmness and clarity but also rejuvenates a sense of purpose.

2. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita & Chamaemelum nobile)

This is one of those plants that can suit a windowbox or a full on chamomile lawn. Drinking it calms, as both varieties of chamomile are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory flavonoids as well as one known as apigenin, which binds to the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain in the same way Xanax and Valium do, but without the long-term side effects.

Smelling it also reduces anxiety and promotes a sense of being refreshed — by triggering a memory of past sips and also by reducing levels of Adrenocorticotropic hormones- those polypeptids produced in response to biological and physical stresses.

3. Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Garden grown mints have an aroma that helps boost concentration and energy. Not all wellbeing is about tranquility. Sometimes you need a pep and that menthol freshness sweeps away the cobwebs to boost cognitive stamina and promote physical stamina too. This rejuvenation in energies and optimum function is a real health kick. Keep it in pots — it spreads like wildfire.

4. Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana)

A herb that is utilised by aromatherapists to alleviate emotional pain and grief and has been utilized in the purification rituals in Roman and Greek temples. I use it to prompt wellbeing and happiness. It’s sun loving, of Mediterranean origin, and so needs a bit of attention to keep in cultivation. It is frost tender but I grow from seed every year to be sure I have the delicious herb aplenty. Its warm spicy aroma promotes happier moods — in fact, the word “Origanum” is a derivation of the Greek word ‘orosganos’ meaning ‘joy of the mountain’.

5. Pot geraniums (Pelargonium spp)

Fond reminders of my childhood — as all my aunts had them in a window, porch, hanging basket or bedding display. Turns out the fragrance is natural HRT — helping regulate hormonal imbalances and also toning up the nervous system. Prominently utilised in aromatherapy to dispel anxiety and depression in more holistic approaches, it is also utilised to enhances sensory perception and promote creativity and imagination. Nothing says wellbeing like a desire to play.

6. Pine (Pinus Sylvestris and other garden pines)

A mood elevator which helps to alleviate stress and depression via its uplifting aroma, but also due to its boost to respiratory function and oxygenation of the brain. It is also utilised in aromatherapy to treat adrenal fatigue. Its fragrance is also healing climate change — those aromatic vapors transform themselves in to an aerosol layer above boreal forests and deflect sunlight, thus cooling the forest and allowing cloud formation (rain, carbon cycle etc).

7. The aroma of vanilla

Vanilla is considered a mood elevator, it promotes feelings of joy and relaxation (a memory association of childhood, summer, seaside and simpler moments) but also via a trigger to brain chemistry to chill. Ok the vanilla bean orchid is not easy to grow so why not substitute it with some vanilla-scented perennials such as sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna), Nemesia ‘Wisley Vanilla’, Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), most heliotrope and even some clematis have vanilla overtones — so have a nosey around your local garden center (don’t forgive that pun).

8. Jasmine (Jasminum officinale)

Long lauded as a tisane and as a fragrance to raise ardor, it stirs more than passions, it also sharpens alertness, stamina and frame of mind. In terms of wellbeing and mood, the aroma is a natural tranquiliser that works to stabilise the sense of control and being at peace by boosting the action of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid which regulates nerve transmission and mood perception

9. Liliac (Syringa vulgaris)

It’s heady perfume also has a tranquilising action due in part to benzyl methyl ethers, which it shares with many essential oils that soothe and promote relaxation. It is often found in relaxation blends

10. The rose

Last but not least, I began smelling the coffee, so it’s fitting to end with smelling the roses. Roses (Rosa spp) have a long aromatherapeutic history in stress reduction. The rose aroma is uplifting, has associations with summer, romance, and even fires our pleasure receptors as well as lowering blood pressure. The essential oil is expensive as there is only about 0.02 percent oil in every rose flowerhead and it takes about 60,000 flowers to produce just one ounce of oil. But you can smell it free in your garden.

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