Lilacs. Roses. Jasmine. Gardenia. Freshly mown grass. Chaparral. Depending on where you grew up, these scents probably conjure up some pretty powerful emotions and memories. In fact, of the five, our olfactory sense is the strongest emotional memory trigger. According to a June ’09 issue of Organic Gardening, “That’s because the part of our brain responsible for basic memory evolved out of the tissue that makes up the olfactory cortex.” For a slightly more detailed explanation, see this article on the psychology of scent, “Whisking up a memory with a whiff: Rachel Herz explores the psychology of scent.“) And here’s another good one, from Science & Tech: “Can you really smell memories? How childhood scents get ‘etched’ on the brain.” See also our next blog post, a guest post by Wendy Meyer that includes a link to her thesis “Persistence of Memory: Scent Gardens for Therapeutic Life Review in Communities for the Elderly.”
Fragrance in the healing garden
For this reason, using plants with fragrant flowers and foliage is an important part of designing the healing garden.* Especially in nursing homes, dementia gardens, and other landscapes for people with memory loss, scent can be very powerful. Consider this story, from Martha M. Tyson’s wonderful book The Healing Landscape: Therapeutic Outdoor Environments, about our colleague Vince Healy:
Vince’s grandmother was in her nineties. For quite some time she had not recognized Vince and was not really fully aware of what was going on around her. Since it was Easter time, Vince decided to pay her a visit. During his drive there, Vince came upon a roadside stand that advertised lilacs for sale. In southern California, lilacs do not grow well. This stand, however, had great quantities of them, and they were cheap. So Vince brought an enormous number of the lilacs and put them in the back of his van…By the time Vince arrived at the nursing home, the lilacs were looking very sad. When Vince walked into his grandmother’s room, she looked at him as always, blankly, and then she looked at the flowers. “They’re wilted! Throw them away!” After all this effort Vince was not about to throw them away, so he moved the lilacs closer, right under her nose. She drew in the fragrance with a deep breath and a sigh and said, “Lilacs….” Then she looked up at Vince and said, “Vinnie, how are you?”
Designing with fragrance as an emotional memory trigger
But even with less miraculous results, scents that elderly people remember fondly – “old-fashioned” flowers like lilacs, honeysuckle, gardenia, mock orange, roses – can evoke positive feelings and often facilitate conversations, thus providing something important but often lacking in places like nursing homes: Personal connection. Because our sense of smell often decreases as we age, strongly scented plants have a better chance of triggering a reaction than something subtle. I highly recommend Tyson’s book for more information, and Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes’ book Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations is also valuable, especially the Chapter 8 on nursing home gardens and Chapter 9 on Alzheimer’s treatment gardens. Several other books have been published on gardens for the elderly, including Jack Carman et al’s new book Recreating Neighborhoods for Successful Aging. If you know of books that specifically address this issue of scent as a memory trigger in healing gardens, I’ll add it to our list!
*One caveat: In some cases, such as with gardens for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, even a good scent may be too overwhelming, and even nauseating. I don’t know of any specific research on what to steer clear of – if anyone reading this knows, please pass the information my way and I’ll list it on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s website.