Fragrance in the Wild Western Garden: Uncommon Conifers

By: Ray Collett

Ray Collett is the founder and director emeritus of the Arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he…

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The ultimate in Wild Western landscapes: snow-covered Mt Shasta towers over lower hills where the pervasive fragrance of juniper mixes with sagebrush and several species of pines. Author’s photographs

The ultimate in Wild Western landscapes: snow-covered Mt Shasta towers over lower hills where the pervasive fragrance of juniper mixes with sagebrush and several species of pines. Author’s photographs

Information—of any kind—on fragrant wild plants for Wild Western gardens is often almost impossible to obtain. Good information is especially scarce. This is a shame, for Native peoples once knew a lot, as did a great many settlers. Their knowledge, unfortunately, was seldom passed on. Today, many inhabitants of the Far West cannot even remember people who lived in the Wild West for whom knowledge of wilderness scents was a part of daily life. Indeed, despite the notion that this is an information age, knowledge of smells is often in people’s heads only. On the surface, today, many seem not to care just where an odor originates. They are, perhaps, pleased enough to smell it.

Gardens exist for many purposes ranging from practical and pleasing to bewildering, amazing, and instructive. A stroll through a fragrance garden can fascinate both adults and children. Some instances are straightforward: a fragrant flower may attract butterflies and the lizards that prey on them. But, the world is seldom simple; satisfying explanations may invoke thoughts and images from diverse realms. A fragrance that is pleasing to one butterfly may be horrifying to the next. Many plants with delightful flowers have foliage or roots with disgusting odors. Some rather pleasant-smelling, leafy plants may bring deer running; yet, on getting closer, they may shake their heads and back carefully away. Fragrances that are enticing to humans can be annoying to dogs. Some plants are confusing, smelling one way on many occasions and differently on others. There are other plants from which odors seemingly just arise and float, leaving a person mystified as to how to get more of the scent.

All manner of thoughts and opinions can arise in a garden. Indeed, a fragrance garden can raise questions that will leave your chemist and ecologist friends shaking their heads. Even your artist and writer friends may not have all the answers. Does one odor combine well with another? The art of mixing scents is difficult to perfect, and many people would not know where to begin. Which plant is the one to start with, and what manner of stories does it unfold?

Thus, there are human reasons for beginning this occasional series of commentaries on interestingly odorous Wild Western plants. They constitute a valuable palette of living materials for constructing and embellishing today’s Wild Western gardens.

Witches’-broom growing on the trunk of a spruce (Picea)

Witches’-broom growing on the trunk of a spruce (Picea)

Conifers

Long before dinosaurs, conifers ruled the earth. Over a period of tens of millions of years, flowering plants mostly displaced them. But the Far West is different. It preserves a great part of today’s conifers and almost all of the truly tall ones. Conifers make timberline trees, and they grow right near the surf. Conifers of one kind or another grow in the rainiest places and in arid places. They are, however, absent from salt flats and from the hottest deserts, but, from lowland desert gardens, you can usually look up and see them on the mountains. The odor of conifers evokes much of the meaning of the West.

Pseudotsuga (the first part is Greek; the last part, Japanese) menziesii, known as Douglas-fir, is one of the great joys of this scented earth. The praise just given requires a little modification, since the forms of Douglas-fir in the Rocky Mountains (or fairly close to there) are rather sharp scented and not nearly so nice as those that grow along the Pacific shores. The aroma exudes from the needles and bark, filling the air in dense forests.

The delicious odor pervading Douglas-fir forests does not arise solely from the trees. Truffles and other mushrooms abound in the soils and the duff of these primeval forests. When they have turned into special morsels buried beneath the soil, these ancient companions of Douglas-fir call out to mammals for help. They need flying squirrels, chipmunks, and deer to dig them out, eat them, and spread their spores throughout the forest. Many creatures, including some humans, are unable to resist their beckoning call, though humans likely need the aid of creatures like dogs and pigs (with more powerful noses) to locate the buried treasure.

Firs (Abies species) are endlessly topped or chopped down for Christmas trees. Some humans revere the scent; others don’t like it, perhaps associating it with the commercial odor of the arrival of Christmas before Halloween. Not all firs smell the same. The most pungent is probably grand fir (A. grandis), which mostly grows close to the ocean; it smells quite like tangerine peel and hybridizes with piney- or lemony-scented white fir (A. concolor). Inland forms of white fir can be utterly delightful to even the worst scrooges. Incienso or Santa Lucia fir (A. bracteata), found here and there in the mountains high above the Big Sur coast, is noticeably unlike other firs. It has its own smell, derived from resins that once were used to make incense candles for the Spanish missions.

Pieces of witches’-broom (top) from a Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and from a normal branchlet (bottom)

Pieces of witches’-broom (top) from a Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and from a normal branchlet (bottom)

Pines are wonderful and highly diverse, not only in fragrance but in many other ways. The Mendocino White Plains form of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) has needles without any resin canals and has only a tiny touch of odor. Yellow pine (P. ponderosa) has needles that shimmer in the sun and sough in the wind; no other tree is better at either shimmering or soughing. Few pines are better at smelling pungent. Pinon pines (P. monophylla) are piney; they include a dash of ethyl caprylate, which is also present in fine wines. Jeffrey pines (P. jeffreyi) are the craziest. They grow on the dourest serpentines or lavas or other inhospitable places and never smell the way a pine tree should. The needles lack pungency and are almost sweet. The reddish bark, especially when heated by the sun, pours out an aroma belonging to sweet puddings and pastries, flavored with vanilla and added bits, perhaps, of pineapple or banana. Yet no one can eat the inviting bark, because it is too hard and dry.

The crushed foliage of the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is enjoyed by many, and its essential oils have been used in perfumes for men. The giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) of the Sierra Nevada are too sharp scented for many people.

Some of the many cypresses of the Wild West smell lemony or just faintly so. The mightiest scented of all trees is likely McNab cypress (Cupressus macnabiana)—a more fragrant tree could never be! Sun-scorched exposures of serpentine rock, here and there on both sides of the Sacramento Valley, support small groves of this species. The flat-sprayed foliage is ornamented with drops of resin, whose aroma wafts away on the wind or lingers on anything that touches it.

The Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) bears foliage that is pungently fragrant and rather sourish. The wood, which we might expect to have a cedar scent, smells sweet, something like a rose! Often found on inland sands in southwestern Oregon but in scattered ultramafic (serpentine) places in northwestern California, it was once a prized source of lumber. Port Orford cedar may not lend its fragrance to the West much longer. A fatal disease, caused by a fungus and spread by boots and tires and, likely, the feet of birds, is threatening its existence in the wild.

What do the Wild Western junipers smell like? Juniperus californica produces a woody, cedar smell from both its foliage and its wood. Juniperus communis smells like gin. Some of the Far Western species of juniper smell of both; it depends upon where you sniff. Enebro (Juniperus monosperma), along with pinon pines, once produced the fireplace wood that evocatively hovered over huge sections of the arid West, scenting the air.

Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) is a giant forest tree. Foliage, cones, and bark are permeated with the scent of cedar chests and pencils, both of which are often made out of its wood. Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), which you might think would smell like gin or pencils, possesses an almost floral scent, utterly delightful to experience.

The deciduous larch (Larix occidentalis) has a slightly pungent smell, as do the hemlocks (Tsuga species); in truth, it’s nothing special. The Pacific yew (Taxus occidentalis) is the most scentless tree you might ever encounter. To conclude this synopsis, the native torreya, tumion, stinkyew, or California nutmeg (Torreya californica), which grows in scattered spots on both sides of the Central Valley, is botanically rather close to a yew and may be grouped with yews and other taxads of the Orient. This rare and special native tree is little appreciated— partly because of its stabbing leaves and also because of its strident odor. The assault of its smell, which arises from any injured part, is much like, and as rank as, that of a stepped-upon native hedgenettle (Stachys), which, strangely enough, often grows nearby, ready to be stepped upon. On no account does this tree produce an odor suggesting nutmeg. Sarcastic Old Western humor is likely to blame for the name, which surely conveys the message that this is your stinking California version of nutmeg. Occasionally, some proclaim how much they enjoy the stinkyew smell. The stinkyew smell is absent from its big kernel, however, and the seeds are delicious and quite edible. Nonetheless, as yew seeds are highly toxic, it might be inadvisable to eat the kindred native torreya seeds. People willing to make the trial are curiously uncommon today.

Witches’-brooms

Most have chosen to plant conifers in their gardens for strictly visual rather than olfactory (or wild, or osmic) reasons. They generally choose cemetery and lawn shrubs, small enough, often, to fit into ordinary urban gardens, and almost sure to grow into special shapes. Lining driveways and masking foundations in much of the temperate and cooler parts of the world are spheres, cones, and compact cylinders, sometimes green but often yellow or creamy (“golden” or “silver”). What do they smell like? Often they stink, because something tends to be metabolically or biochemically amiss with them.

What did we start with to get, for instance, a yellow- leafed, coniferous rug for a groundcover? One may have appeared as a chance mutations in nursery rows where tens of thousands of seedlings are grown. Horticulturists may also have spied an abnormal growth, a witches’-broom, high in a towering conifer. Cut off and rooted, these witches’- brooms grew into dwarf or compact plants bearing little resemblance to the parent. The towering Port Orford cedar was a great source of such growths. Though the wild forests of this tree may be disappearing, in gardens around the world there continue to be healthy and robust cylindrical, spherical, or conical landscape plants, descendants of the Port Orford cedars of the Wild West.

Witches’-brooms are commonly seen in the Wild West, high up on wonderfully scented Douglas-firs, junipers, and firs, and on not so good smelling spruces. The odor of a spruce witches’-brooms is usually repulsive, typically resulting in questions such as: Where’s the baby who just heaved up his breakfast? Where’s the cat that just ruined his litter box? Defenders of spruce witches’-brooms will often maintain that they cannot smell a thing or blame the odor on a fungus— never on the spruce.

The photograph on page 8 shows pieces of a witches’-broom found lying in a road, probably knocked out of a magnificent Douglas-fir by a squirrel or bird. The normal branchlet shows the typical size and density of the needles; that branchlet had the wonderful Douglasfir smell. The pieces of witches’-broom were essentially scentless. If a fungus was involved, it had, at least at this stage, no odor; something in the witches’-broom was biochemically wrong, obviating the typical fragrance.