Fragrant and odiferous trees

Trees are beautiful to the eye but their smell is often overlooked. I don’t mean the obvious showy flowering trees but the hidden olfactory wonders in leaf, bark and seed. Here are my favourite Fragrant trees, and some less popular Odiferous trees.

Fragrant trees

  • The fresh needles of the European larch (Larix decidua) in Spring, a deciduous conifer, when crushed smell of freshly cut grass with a hint of pine.
  • The opening buds and young leaves of Balsam Poplar (Populus spp.) in Spring have a sweet honey or musk smell.
  • Wood from the Sassafrass tree (Sassafrass spp.) was once a major export, second only to tobacco, from North America to Europe. An essential oil distilled from its bark is still popular today. A freshly snapped twig of sassafrass smells deliciously sweet.
  • The distinctive smell of the aromatic oil released when Eucalyptus spp. leaves are crushed has made it popular for aromatherapy and massage. Eucalyptus globulus leaves contain up to 70% oil. The lemon eucalyptus (Corymbia citriodora) smells strongly of (you’ve guessed it) lemons.
  • Sweet birch (Betula lenta) also known as black birch, is a tree native to Eastern North America. It has a sweet woody smell and is used in the production of wintergreen.
  • Common walnut (Juglans regia) and black walnut (Juglans nigra) leaves have a characteristic and strong smell that is difficult to describe. My best effort would be “spicy-citrus”. Once described as “injurious to sensitive people” in an old herbal. If you crush walnut leaves or break open the drupes you will get black hands (read more).
  • Peel back a small patch of bark from a cedar tree (e.g. Atlas Cedar, Deodar Cedar, Lebanon Cedar, or Cyprus Cedar) and inhale the wonderful spicy aroma of its wood.
  • Finally … it is hard to ignore some of nature’s greatest aromas from plants that are closely associated with trees, especially honeysuckle, wild garlic and wild thyme.
Elder in flower
Elder in flower with abandoned farm machinery. Elder flowers are sweet and perfumed when young, but smell of cat's pee when older. Photography: camera DMC-GF2, lens 7mm, f22. Five shot HDR combined image.

Odiferous trees

The beauty of trees is that they change through the seasons. If you find a particular feature of a tree unpleasant, such as its flowers or leaves, you won’t have to suffer them all year long.

  • The leathery leaves of Box (Boxus sempervirens) have a sharp acid smell, disliked by many people.
  • Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) also known as the Bradford pear, is a widely planted street tree in the USA. Unfortunately its white flowers, which appears in early Spring, are particularly strong-smelling; some say of old fish or even semen.
  • Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) also known as the “living fossil tree”, has very pungent fruit various described as rancid butter, dog faeces or vomit. This has limited its popularity as a street tree, although it is dioecious (separate male and female trees), and so male trees do not bear the smelly fruits.
  • Some Catalpa tree species are said to have a mild scent, although the smell of their wood when freshly sawn is often disliked by tree surgeons.
  • Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was once a popular street until its ability to reproduce by suckering made it a pest in many countries, while its smell earned it the nickname of the “stink tree”.

In case you wondered where the Tea tree was in this post – it’s not the name for an actual tree species but applies to a number of different plants. I’m sure that some readers will disagree whether one tree or another is fragrant or odiferous, as smell is a personal thing. Have I missed out one of your favourite or least favourite smelling trees?

Gabriel Hemery

11 thoughts on “Fragrant and odiferous trees

  1. “Du vent dans les branches de Sassafra” ….a much celebrated play full of fantasy and humour ,written by René de Obaldia – a French playwright and poet from the Académie française (1999)….a haunting memory, words sounding so appealing for dreamers , witty and strikingly subversive…..
    Special mention to the modest but much loved river poplar tree ( ” grâce et mélancolie des arbres fluviatiles… ” said Marcel Proust) whose trembling silvery leaves evoke for me the gentle murmuring of the ever rolling waves..diffusing a pervading sweet aniseed fragrance which sends back to ancient memory, the lost paradise of my infancy…by the sandy riverside of Ardêche…

  2. Thanks for reminding me about Poplar balsam. Heavenly scent in evening walks, but so hard to pin down.
    Elderflowers don’t spread scent much, but they are like heaven to sniff deeply, so long as you don’t have hayfever!

  3. Whoops, what I wanted to ask you is if you know what kind of brambly looking hedge plant smells of citrusy mint only in the rain. My favourite smell of all, but I can’t ID the plant. (Not a weed, it is planted on purpose).

  4. On a quest.!!! On walks in two different areas; great scent of Thyme. No obvious Thyme plant growing nearby. Usual common Sorbus and Popular Trees growing in amenity locality. Any ideas?

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