I lived in an old converted turkey coop at boarding school in rural northern Arizona. For a teenager, it provided heavenly solitude. A small bathhouse—serving maybe 25 other boys—sat about two hundred yards away on the opposite bank of an arroyo. My “one man cabin” was the size of about two rows of 3 across coach seating on a 747, at the most. Large canvas awning-like flaps covered screened windows that took up more than half of two sides of the little cube. I had #13, situated at the far northeast corner, with a narrow coffin-lid door facing southwest. It backed up to a large pigpen that served the school and ranch communities, consisting of a boar, about twenty sows and dozens of piglets on three acres surrounded by a wire and wood plank fence. The swine were oddly quiet—only a few squabbles a day—except at feeding time, when the ruckus at the trough was deafening. The massive sows jostled each other from side to side to make room for their offspring, who darted in and out and grabbed mouthfuls from the trough. It was an amazing sight, like a piston engine with alternating horizontal and vertical sets of motion. When the kitchen slop poured from the truck into the long trough, the din would grow like an engine approaching redline. Pig feeding lasted about a half hour daily at 9 A.M. and again at 5 P.M.
Late in the fall a north wind would prevail for a few days and, at first, I was a bit shocked. I didn’t accept it during my first week there, like it wasn’t happening. Then after a while I got used to the profound aroma, a bit like gasoline in its complexity and pungency. I’d always been a big fan of petroleum smells, having loitered around garages during childhood summers. However, this was several orders of magnitude greater in intensity. To my amazement, I and a few boys in the neighboring cabins got used to the unusual fragrance, as it wafted across our encampment from time to time. It was especially welcome in the dry, lifeless winter. Eventually we loved those pigs and their signature aroma. To this day, if I pass a pig farm and the car windows are cracked, I drop them down and take it all in, hoping a forgotten memory of adolescence will surface.
In the heavily forested and hilly town of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where I spent my pre-teen years, I had become well acquainted with the truly exotic and unique scent of an alerted skunk by the time I went to Arizona. Perhaps I was predisposed to strong odors by the gasoline and skunks by the time I encountered the pigs. Therefore, my nightly winter visitor in Arizona was a welcome guest. The skunk took up residence underneath the cabin, burrowing in when the night temperatures dropped below freezing in December and staying there several weeks, until the night watchman rooted him out and drowned him, to my horror. But this was the late 60s, when such practices were common.
The skunk and I had an amusing routine: each night, he let me know that the music from my little Magnavox was frightening or otherwise disturbing him, by letting it rip. The tiny cabin would fill with skunk smell like a balloon with air. The set-up—freezing night air and a very small space heater—favored the skunk. I would dutifully stop playing rock and roll, and he would mercifully stop spraying. Evolution favored him, but I was a born loser. I couldn’t stop listening to rock music—it was boarding school, for goodness sake—so we made this exchange every night. Eventually, as with the pigs, I became accustomed to the smell.
Now, again, if the summer night’s traffic has destroyed a skunk and the odor is on the wing, I drop the windows. Few, if any, agree with me on either of these aromas—most particularly the skunk’s—but I don’t care. They appear so rarely, it’s worth the pain.
I tell you this because there are at least three ornamental cultivars I can think of that fall into my pig-and-skunk category: Marigold (Tagetes), Pelargonium and Chrysanthemum. I’ve met many folks who wrinkle their noses at all three.
However, I’ve worked very closely with them, from childhood on, and treasure their rich and precious fragrances. So it is fitting that I introduce you to a short list of heavily aromatic Heronswood plants most likely to “grow on you”, so to speak, both sweet and pungent.
Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Lohfelden’ (Spicy leaves)
Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’ (Pungent flowers)
Lysichiton americanus (Pungent flowers)
Melianthus major ‘Antonow’s Blue’ (Pungent foliage)
Smilacina szechuanica (Delicious fragrance)