A Whole Lot of Tommyrot

I have a sister (colourful, excitable, b. 1959) who used to describe some flavours as tasting exactly like the smell of something else.  My Dad (v non-excitable, b. 1928) told her she was speaking a whole lot of tommyrot.

Now just keep your finger in that page for a bit and lets talk violets.

I was walking into a mate’s place the other day and vaguely noted what I took to be little balls of screwed up white paper in his front garden bed.  Now this mate is capable of spectacular feats of messiness, but not in the way of paper blowing around in a garden bed, so I looked again, and realized that I was looking at violets.  Double white parma violets.

I’d only been reading about this very violet a few days before in the catalogue from Lambley nursery, in which David Glenn states that a single bloom of Viola ‘Comte de Brazzi’ can perfume a whole room.  I don’t know about the power of one, but the four I brought home with me are more than capable of the job.

Violets exude an extraordinary perfume.  It’s rich, warm, velvety and has a viscosity (to me) somewhere between syrup and treacle. It’s been scientifically proven that we desensitize to it quite quickly, and that it takes minutes for our receptors to reset in order to be able to smell it again (which kind of explains why I found, many years ago, that walking around with one shoved up my nostril is a little pointless).  But curiouser still, some people can’t smell it at all. My wife is such a person.  My kids can all smell it.

To me it’s a smell.  But to my kids, it’s the smell of a taste.

Back in 2004 we were living in Northern Ireland, and we bought a packet of sweets (you don’t call ‘em lollies there) called Parma violets.  The extent to which they tasted exactly like the smell of violet flowers was surreal.  And the first thing you discerned, as they landed on your tongue, was that it’s much better as a scent than as a flavor.  About half-way through my first one I felt like I started to take on a faint tinge of purple (just like Violet Beauregard in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory), and a throbbing, mauve-coloured headache seeped into my frontal lobes.

Just this minute I asked my 19 year old if she could smell the little bunch of violets I was holding up to her.  She answered ‘If they smell like those lollies, I’m going to kill you’.  She sniffed.  ‘Instant headache’ she announced.

On Friday night, my eldest daughter was home for her birthday, and took a sniff.  Her brain took her straight back to Northern Ireland.  The very next day she was lurking around some shops in Olinda, Victoria, and guess what she found?


  1. Love your flowery description of the ‘smell’ Michael. But reckon I can feel a headache coming on!! Mx

    1. I can get enough of the scent, myself. In fact, I took a long draught just after that full stop after ‘myself’. But it’s a different creature when it’s a flavour. Don’t know why, but it is.

  2. I may be remembering incorrectly, but I recall Lifesavers having a violet flavour that did just what you describe. Can anyone back me up on this?

    1. Could it be the musk flavour you’re remembering Christine? They were incredibly intensely ‘floral’. I don’t remember any violet options (and when I first read your description, I read ‘violent flavour’ – an oddly apt misreading…)

    2. There was a violet flavoured Lifesaver- (viOlet on the packet) but you’d have to be of a certain vintage to remember them- I don’t think they’ve been around since the fifties. I remember quite liking the flavour, but I love musk lollies,too.

  3. I was at an AGS meeting in the Dandenongs last Saturday.. John Ballard had grown a Muscari macrocarpum that was flowering out of season . I revelled in it’s sweet unctuous smell though John was unable to smell it . He had also grown a south African bulb and though I have tried to remember and research I cannot remember the name . John loved the smell and well frankly, I gagged!

    What I regret is that most people dont think to smell a “wild” flower and yet so often i have seen celebrities presented with a bunch of flowers and they will automatically attempt to smell them and cynically I know that , in most cases , there will be no smell…. just a romantic association

  4. Dear Michael,
    Just read your column in Gardening Aust. on evocative garden scents.
    I wish to assure you that balsam poplars are indeed wonderfully fragrant for a few weeks in early spring. The sticky chestnut coloured “balsam” exuded by the buds smells heavenly! While not a traditionally floral scent, it is very attractive to bees who collect the sap to stick things down in their hives. If lucky enough to keep bees you can be instantly transported back to spring every time you pry the lid off a hive.
    Sneak up on a Lombardy just before it unfurls tiny leaves and you can catch a whiff of this delightful fragrance.

    1. Thanks Nanette. I’ll give it a go. We used to detect elusive scents around several poplar species in a big garden that I used to work in, and suspected that was what was going on

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