Going back to my first blog, we explored ‘peak experiences’ in the natural world; the times when any boundaries between you, the observer, and the environment, or what you are observing, become blurred or disappear altogether, and a sense of wellbeing is experienced. Since then, we have looked at some of the scents of the natural world – the forests and woods, and the seashore. This time we will consider the beautiful fragrances of the hayfields, pastures and hedgerows. These scents are often described as ‘agrestic’, meaning that they are reminiscent of the countryside.
One of the most popular and pleasing fragrances is ‘new mown hay’. This particular odour is given by a naturally occurring chemical known as coumarin. It is found in tonka beans and clover, as well as in some of the grasses that populate pastures and hayfields, such as vernal grass and sweet grass. At the beginning of the 1900s, foin coupee, or new-mown hay perfumes were very popular; at first these were made from coumarin isolated from tonka beans, and then later on with synthetic coumarin, which was considerably cheaper. Although this style of perfume has fallen from favour, it would seem that many of us still enjoy the scent of hay au naturel. Hay absolute can be extracted from dried alpine sweetgrass, Hierochloe alpina. This has a beautiful scent – warm, sweet, rich, green and hay-like – and the artisan perfumer Alec Lawless suggested that it is ‘perhaps a contender for a happy smell’. It is not used much in mainstream perfumery, but has found a place in natural and niche compositions. Hay absolute is perhaps not a conventional meditation fragrance, and it does not seem to be used much in aromatherapy, but its scent can certainly impart good feelings!
The alpine sweetgrass is related to the sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata, which is used by Native Americans in smudging ceremonies. These ceremonies are usually are conducted by an Elder or a shaman. Smudging is the burning of particular herbs and woods, where the smoke is taken in the hands and ‘brushed’ over the body or a place; sometimes with a feather. This is accompanied by a prayer of intent, which is usually to drive away negativity, and for purification. For smudging, sweetgrass is made into braids, and is usually burned after sage and cedar, to bring in good spirits and to accompany prayers to the Creator. So, its smoke as well as its scent is associated with positive energy.
Other scented grasses that help to create the unique olfactory atmosphere of the meadow are sweet alyssum (Alyssum compactum), which has a strong, sweet, honey-like scent, and sweet-scented vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), which is widespread in pastures and hayfields in the south east of the USA. It is also known as vanilla grass, holy grass and buffalo grass. It has a sweet smell, reminiscent of hay and vanilla, which is in part provided by the coumarin content.
Sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) is a fragrant perennial herb, that is very attractive to bees, and which also flourishes in meadows and pastures. As its name suggests, this too has a sweet scent that is reminiscent of new mown hay, but also of woodruff; again this is due to the coumarin. Traditionally, because of their sweet, gentle and attractive aroma, dried clover flowers were used to perfume snuff and pipe tobacco, and even to flavour cheeses such as Gruyère. The scent of clover intensifies as it dries out, and so the dried flowers can be used as an all-natural, uplifting home fragrance. Like the sweetgrasses and hay absolute, clover has a comforting scent that raises the spirits, and this has been recognised for some time – in the 17th century, it was used in a bath water remedy for melancholy. In traditional medicine, it was used to support the digestion and for swelling and oedema, however in modern herbal medicine it is also used as an anti-inflammatory and to enhance immune function. Sweet clover was important in the development of an important drug – warfarin. ‘Sweet clover disease’ was a bleeding disorder of cattle that had eaten spoiled Melilotus hay. Bacterial degradation of the coumarin content forms a compound called dicoumarol which is an anticoagulant; and its discovery led to the development of warfarin.
The heady, sweet and honey-like perfume of meadowsweet (Filipenda ulmaria) flowers is also part of the scent of the meadows, and is found growing along streams, and in the hedgerows which border fields and pastures. From the earliest times, meadowsweet was held in very high regard; it was sacred to the Druids, and it featured in the Lammas Tide harvest festival on August 1st. The flowers were used to make mead and honey wines, and they are still used in recipes for herbal beers. The herbalists Gerard and Culpeper both suggested that if consumed in wine, it would give a ‘merry heart’. Along the same lines, it was a very popular strewing herb, apparently favoured by Elizabeth I. Strewing herbs were scattered on floors so that their fragrance would be released when trodden upon. At these times, homes and palaces had bad smells, which were thought to carry illness and disease. So, strewing herbs would make the domestic atmosphere sweeter, and the antiseptic volatile oils in the herbs may well have helped curtail the spread of disease. Gerard maintained that meadowsweet was the best of the strewing herbs, as it promoted a merry heart and delighted the senses. Just as clover was important in the development of warfarin, meadowsweet too had a role to play in the development of an important contemporary drug – aspirin. In 1839, salicylic acid was isolated from the flower buds. However, as this was found to cause gastric discomfort, acetylsalicylic acid was developed and named ‘aspirin’; this is a widely used anti-inflammatory and analgesic.
From this short exploration of the aromatic grasses and flowers of our meadows and pastures, we can see how their scents are indeed happy and uplifting ones, and so it is not surprising that many of us like to spend time in the places where they grow. Hay fever sufferers are at a disadvantage here; however, the essential oils and absolutes do not cause discomfort, and so these scents can be enjoyed in the form of aromatic extracts instead. In childhood and adolescence I suffered badly with hay fever, and even now associate meadows with hours of enduring a streaming nose, sneezing and itchy eyes. However, for me, clover is an exception. I have very happy memories of lying in the sunshine, on the clover-covered sand dunes at Westport beach, on the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, listening to the waves crashing on the sand, and the breeze running through the grasses. Scent is so very, very evocative!
Written by: Jennifer Rhind
Grieve, M. (1992) A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International. (Original work published in 1931).
Lawless, A. (2009) Artisan Perfumery or Being Led by the Nose. Stroud: Boronia Souk Ltd.
Mills, S. and Bone, K. (2000) Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.