When the language falls short

Its that time of year when even the most depressing of hardware garden centres is underservedly graced, for just a few weeks, with the ambrosial – the paradisiacal – the entirely matchless – scent of boronia.

I’ve been told that I’m subject to exaggeration (which I grudgingly accept, though can’t myself see), but it just isn’t possible to exaggerate the beguiling complexity of this perfume above perfumes.

I so wish I could put my hands on the October 1951 issue of the English mag ‘My Garden’, and recount word-for-word the memorable story of a distracted Londoner walking down a chilly street in an early London spring, and being stopped in their tracks by their first ever whiff of brown boronia (Boronia megastigma).  My memory of their reaction is such as to make mine above look unimaginative and underworked.  I know I have that issue somewhere, but it’s not amongst my near-complete collection of these fabulous mags, published between 1934 and 1951.  If anyone out there has a copy, the index in the December issue of that years says it’s on page 305!


One can only imagine smelling it for the first time as an adult.  It would be something akin to discovering a colour you never knew existed – one you thought the spectrum previously incapable of providing.   As Aussies we’ve grown up with it, so have always known nature capable of conjuring such a scent, but this doesn’t detract from the annual miracle of its brief manifestation.

I love that this olfactory magic emerges from such a humble plant.  And one that we (in typical Aussie style) further devalue by simply calling it ‘brown’ boronia.  In good strong sunlight, the outside of the cup-shaped flowers on my current plant are distinctly aubergine to maroon, with an inner lining of a very slightly tainted lime, or what you’d get if you mixed a little black into yellow – providing a really curious combination not unlike (come to think of it) the green/purple thing of a pistachio nut, or something you might expect of a fritillaria.


The plant itself is of no garden use to me.  I can’t provide the combination of perfectly drained but never dry soil that it demands (and surely only small pockets of WA achieves).  I’m perfectly happy to buy a plant every year, from said depressing (but cheap) hardware garden centre, and turf it once the flowers fade.

Meanwhile I am temporarily transported to nasal heaven.  My wife, alas, can’t smell it, so I have to go alone.


  1. Years ago on Qantas planes, they sold a perfume called ‘LL’ (said as ‘double L’) which was a combination of boronia and sandalwood. It was simply divine, the sandalwood giving some dusky tones to the sweeter, lighter boronia. I’m with you on this one. Brown boronia fragrance is so unique I also buy it just as ‘potted scent’ for a week or so. Although I also find it’s one of those odd ‘now you smell it, now you don’t’ perfumes, like violets. You can smell it really strongly on the first whiff and then you go back for a second one and it seems to elude you. After a minute or so away, it’s back again.

    1. Potted scent is exactly what this plant is, though I’ve managed to prolong its contribution by not keeping it in a heated room when there’s no one in the room to smell it.
      And as for the violets, it has recently been proven that our scent receptors do block the scent after an initial sniff, and it takes a minute or two for it to unblock. You’ve really got to wonder why – what possible evolutionary advantage would there be for that? No doubt this phenomenon is linked to the reason why some can’t smell violets at all (or boronia, as I’ve recently discovered).
      In replying, I’ve succumbed to the temptation to munch on a sweet that my daughter brought back from Ireland for me. They’re called ‘Parma violets’, and they taste exactly (and disturbingly) like the smell of a real parma violet. We all remember trying them when we lived there a decade ago, and recall the faint mauve cast that our faces took on in eating them. They actually taste mauve. It’s really unsettling, but curious in a way that you can’t help repeating the experience every now and then.

  2. I think the magic of scent is it’s very nature of being elusive and impermanent. If we were able to capture such aromas I suspect they may be cloying.

    As i cant smell boronia either I don’t feel any desire to grow such ordinary straggly short lived, finicky, ungarden worthy plants . Wish i felt that way about Brugsmansia!

    The beginning of September is the time I anticipate the flowering of Azara microphylla (coincidentally with Pittosporum undulatum). Planted by my front steps it’s weird Myrtaceous flowers emit their scent only when there is humidity and the air is still. Oh then, I stop, close my eyes , breathe deeply, and I am transported….. I don’t know where for i have not yet been to the forests of Chile.

    Another for me is Cyclamen purpurascens, rich and voluptuous, and maybe a little like Diorissima.

    Our inability to describe such scents is so much part of their lovely mystery. I am glad I don’t have the language to describe the wine I enjoy!

  3. I can’t smell boronia either, which is incredibly frustrating as people are always going on about how magnificent it is. I’m salving the wound with osmanthus – the best smell in my garden this week.

    1. It’s a sad loss. I won’t lie to you.
      But in the interests of our vicarious pleasure, which sp of Osmanthus?

    2. Nothing exciting, just O.delavayi. Sprigs of its matte leaves and little flowers are just the right size to fit into a tiny Japanese vase I have which is barely as big as a sake cup. Scents my bathroom beautifully. But today’s westerly from hell has finished it, along with the ranunculas, freesias and flag iris. Note to self, must get bulbs in early to avoid Sydney typical late-September heatwave!

    3. Nothing exciting you say? There’s no osmanthus that I’d relegate to a ‘boring’ category. I love O. delavayi!

  4. I don’t think I have ever smelt it. Feel compelled to go to gardening centre tomorrow and take a whiff.
    I have a vigorous shrub / climber thing in my garden which smells amazing during winter and spring, when the conditions are right – haven’t worked out what sets it off but some days you can smell from the house and others not from right next to it. Don’t know what it is but it is just mesmerising.
    Enjoy gardening everyone!

  5. Interesting how we can’t recall the intensity of pleasure exactly as we experienced it once it’s gone. We can recall that it was wonderful in some particular way, but we have to experience it directly again. A blessing I suppose by the same token we cant recall acute unpleasant experiences!

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