The Big Question: Ann Wroe chooses a smell that is a "dreaming distillation"

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

Some smells seize you by the throat. Others are gentler, elusive. Some surround you, whether you want them or not; others, diffident, offer you a choice in the matter. This is the way of most wild flowers, whose scent scarcely travels farther than a bee can scramble. You must make a detour to smell twining honeysuckle, and stand on straining, teetering tiptoe when you find it. Bluebells, even by thousands, require you to kneel among them; for scented violets you must wriggle under the hedge. Even then you may still be disappointed, for the scent of wild flowers is largely anticipation. The smell of wild violets should be the one we find in livid sugared petals, mauve fondant creams and the handbags of elderly aunts; but under the brambles air, rain and shyness will always have thinned it away.

The smell of the wild rose—more properly the dog rose, Rosa canina, but the name insults it—is perhaps more anticipated than any other. Its showy garden cousins, especially the velvety crimson kind, spoil us to intoxication: wine-scents to drowse by and love by, deepening with dusk, and lingering in the moth-like petals scattered darkly on the grass. We carry them away for pot pourri, rose water and room sprays, scattering their strong ambience around us.

The wild rose, older and simpler, offers nothing of that kind. When you have managed to get near (with difficulty, for it grows above the hedge on long, thin, arching briars), you will find in the delicate white-to-pink petals only a foreshadowing, a faint prediction, of the scent of the rose you suppose you know. 

A rose in the garden of my childhood had this scent. It was cultivated, but it was the sole yearly production of a bush that was dying, reduced to a foot of woody stock and a stem or two of spotty, bluish leaves. We should have dug it up, but it was all the rose we had; we kept it for the single, frail, peach-washed bloom which, when I sniffed it, drew me into a shining world of satin clouds and fields, far from suburban London.

This rose seemed to be reverting to long-forgotten type. It was losing year by year its multiple petals and its lurid catalogue colour to become a pale, wild thing of the hedges, and surrendering its exaggerated scent for a note so soft, so dew-fresh and cobweb-shaken, that it was scarcely there at all. "Oh Rose, thou art sick!" Blake might have cried. Yet in that sigh of the wild rose—that slightest sweetness on the air—lie all roses and all summers. From this original sprang all the rest. Its scent is a dreaming distillation of gardens, hedges and sunlight across the centuries: scent faded by distance, as dreams and memories are always faded, but still richly capable of tripping up the heart.

What do you think is the best smell? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Edward Carr on Baking bread, Rose Tremain on New-mown hay, Philip Pullman on Bacon, Robin Robertson on Rain and Ian Jack on an Indian railway platform.

Ann Wroe is the obituaries editor of The Economist and the author of "Being Shelley" and "Orpheus: The Song of Life", which won the Criticos prize.

Picture Corbis