The scent of nostalgia

Whilst all the senses are connected to memory, it is scent which can be the most powerful in recalling the past … an old rose reminiscent of granny’s garden, the faint scent of a familiar perfume, cloves baking in an apple pie.

Greening the inner city

The evocative scent of old roses

For me, certain flowers recall the ten years I spent in South Africa. A stroll in the glasshouses of Dublin’s Botanic gardens when the Brunfelsia pauciflora is in flower is certain to draw me back to that time. Although not native to South Africa, it was widely grown there for its strong sweet smell; it was known as yesterday-today-and-tomorrow as its petals began as purple, then lilac and finally faded to white.



Brunfelsia pauciflora at home in South Africa

Mimosa, Acacia dealbata, an Australian native, is widely grown in Mediterranean climates and its delicious scent will always remind me of Spring holidays in southern France or Italy. Its flowers are frequently given to women in Italy, Russia and Georgia on International Women’s Day (March 8th). Here, it can often be found in florist shops in early Spring and fills the house with its sweet scent and cheerful Spring yellow. I can’t resist it.


Mimosa for sale at a French market in February

Lavender is also an evocative plant which invariably delights – the scent of summer, bees humming along lavender hedges, holidays, sunshine on Provençal fields. I never fail to plant it in my gardens, always near a bench or by the house, its scent reminds me of happy times, holidays spent long ago with good friends near Aix-en-Provence.


Photo credit : Trekearth

It isn’t just places but people which are brought to mind when we catch the scent of something which stops us in our tracks. My late father bought me a flowering shrub for my first garden, a Philadelphus, or mock-orange, with its creamy white very fragrant flowers; its scent will forever be associated with him.


The fragrant flowers of the Philadelphus


But why does scent create nostalgia? It seems that smells enter through the nose to the olfactory bulb, part of the limbic system, the emotional part of our brain; whereas words go into the thinking part of our brains. This explains why smells evoke emotional, nostalgic feelings rather than anything concrete.


I wonder is there a particular scent which transports you to another place or time? Flowers from a wedding bouquet? Something from a childhood garden? Or from a holiday? Would love to hear if there is …

11 thoughts on “The scent of nostalgia

  1. The scent of boxwood always carries me back to Virginia where I grew up, and the smell of dry earth when rain begins to fall takes me to its hot summer days. Lilac transports me to my first garden, near Toronto, Ontario. Sweetly scented narcissus tell me it is spring, and that I am at my present garden, Glen Villa, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Scent equals nostalgia. So don’t get me started on madeleines!

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    • Yes, boxwood, or box as we call it, has a very distinctive scent. I always recall the Victorian garden at Hunter’s Hotel here in Ireland, with its garden of box hedging. Lilac and narcissi too are very nostalgic too. Thank you, more memories!


  2. Thanks for a wonderful post! I have always enjoyed and been especially fond of Easter lilies and orchidea; many were quite fashionable in my childhood and were worn as corsages pinned to Easter dresses. We also had Easter hats which sometimes also had some kind of little flower. Some lilies have a delicate scent, others more pronounced. I enjoy them all. 🙂

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    • Yes, you’re right, lilies such a lovely scent. Love the idea of Easter corsages of lilies. You’ve reminded me of my mother wearing a corsage of orchids when she went out to a special danse. Thank you, hadn’t thought about that in years.


  3. Seeing the ‘yesterday today and tomorrow’ really takes me back to our last house in Johannesburg. The scent of gardenias reminds me of a bottle of perfume I got as a Christmas present from my aunt when I was fourteen. It was such a surprise, because every year without fail, she would send me a manicure set for my birthday and again at Christmas. 🙂 The scent of red roses reminds me of me in my early 20’s when I had a small black and red bottle of ‘Joy’ perfume, which I eked out for as long as I could, because it was so expensive. Thanks for the memories, Lorna. Your photos are beautiful.


  4. I had just posted how the fragrance of mock orange blossoms brought the memory of my mother so powerfully to me so it got me thinking. I searched online for “Nostalgia through fragrance of a mock orange” and it brought me right to your blog.
    It must be an incredible bit of Love magic to be so powerful as to put a person in a trance and bring her back to childhood…wouldn’t you say?
    Mom, you’ve been gone for 25 years and yet you are here with me once again in this dreamy white flower. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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