Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Scent of Orange

It is late March, and in Phoenix, that means the scent of citrus blossoms—especially orange.  I’ve had various reasons to poke my head outside the door the last couple of nights:  romantic reasons like making sure the pool filter isn’t clogged or rolling the trash can to the curb.  Each time, I’ve gotten about two yards out of the house when I’ve stopped dead in my tracks, utterly enthralled and overwhelmed by the unexpected fragrance of orange blossoms.

I still remember the first time I had this experience—it was not all that long ago.  I was visiting Arizona in March of 2002, just after having accepted the job here.  We were looking at schools so we’d have an idea of where to look for a house, and I made a couple of trips to the School of Music.  The building is surrounded by orange trees, which were all in full bloom.  After being stupefied by this intoxicating perfume three or four times, I finally blurted out to one of my soon-to-be colleagues, “What is that smell?  It’s glorious!”  She laughed and pointed to the orange trees.

I can tell you that the aroma of those blossoms has an immediate and profound effect on me, but I cannot describe the smell.  It is heady and sweet, but not as cloying or overpowering as that of Asian lilies.  It is, I blush to say, completely and utterly sensual.  You want to roll in it, preferably wearing as little as possible.  At very least, you want to stop whatever you’re doing, stand--or better, lie--still, and just stay there, smelling that smell, forever.  Indeed, that aroma seems to make time stop for me, and maybe even make the earth wobble a bit on its axis.

What’s more, I never expect it.  It takes a few days of repeating this experience before I start anticipating the smell and looking for excuses to be outside.  That’s a wonderful moment, but really the best one is when it just comes up and grabs you by the olfactory nerves, throws you to the pavement, and leaves you there for dead.  Only you’re not dead, you’re in something that just might be heaven.  It’s the closest thing to a thunderbolt I know, and only a very few stunning experiences compare to it.  It’s like falling in love—at first sight.  It’s a good belt to the solar plexus that completely takes your breath away.

Orange trees are miraculous in a couple of ways:  so far as I'm aware, they’re the only tree whose ripe fruit and blossoms hang side-by-side on the same branch—it takes almost a year for the fruit to mature.  The leaves are glossy and nearly perfect.  The overall shape of the tree is compact, symmetrical, and very pleasing.  The blossoms hide a bit; they’re not immediately obvious, but they sure do make their presence felt through that fragrance, which is most potent, for some reason, at night.  There are a few other things whose scent can stop me cold:  honeysuckle in North Carolina (it grew outside our bedroom windows) and balsam in Maine (which you almost always smell when you're hiking) are two.  As wonderful as they are, though, they never get my attention the way citrus trees do.

By now, I’m fully aware that the trees are blooming; I find myself looking forward to going outside tonight.  There are no citrus trees in our yard, but there are many on the street, and the air is suffused with that sublime aroma.  Forget stopping to smell the roses:  let me be smacked between the eyes by the scent of oranges anytime.  And if you see me standing stock still in the middle of the street (maybe without a shirt on), don’t worry.  I haven’t lost my marbles.  I’m just soaking up the smell of orange blossoms.


  1. Absolutely! Will second everything you said. But usually too busy smelling and "rolling" in the feeling to talk coherently. Thanks for putting to words the cause of these uncontrollable smiles.

  2. I'm kind of proud of the photo in this blog post. I thought it might be fun to see how I arrived at it.

    So here's a link to the original photo: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/_5egDVC1b8OU/TZKPwboPO8I/AAAAAAAAAPI/_0k23V5q2a8/s640/IMG_3123.JPG

    And here's how I cropped it: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/_5egDVC1b8OU/TZKP4vsJH4I/AAAAAAAAAPI/GQttx6rPOqU/s576/orange%2C%20crop%203.JPG

    The photo as it appears in the blog has been manipulated a bit (I think all published photos are): I enhanced the depth of field and fiddled with the contrast and depth of color.

    Since I'm new to this, I figure it pays to be transparent. I'm like a lot of people who think that you can get great photos without doing anything to them...

  3. (By the way, I should have said in the post above that the bit I cropped out was near the middle of the original photo. Look for the largest orange blossom with an orange just to its left.)

  4. I very much miss that- the smell of the citrus blossoms in the winter/early spring! Nothing else quite like it!

  5. I'm glad to recall it for you, Megan!

  6. Mine is the tea olive. My next door neighbor had them outside her house and whenever they bloomed I would do the same exact thing. I often wondered if the neighbors thought I was odd just standing randomly in my yard sniffing the air. Now I'm curious to smell orange blossoms.

  7. From what I read, Fragrant Tea Olive (Osmanthus Fragrans) reminds people of jasmine or gardenia, two other plants with an extraordinary power to scent the air around them. I imagine its glorious.

    It doesn't matter, really, what plant (or plants) does this for you: just enjoy it, because it's so rare and so astonishing.