Imagine a plant that smells like the perfect combination of spicy sage and fresh coconut. Well, on the open crests of the rolling hills at Londolozi, you might be lucky enough to find a small bush with purple flowers that smells exactly like that. You might not even need to look for it because the scent is so strong that you can just use your nose to find it.
To me, summer mornings in the bush are often mixed with pockets of wild fragrance as you drive through certain clearings or as a herd of impala walks along the game trails. The strong aroma of liquorice that comes from wild aniseed, the ever-so-familiar fresh mint as you brush past a distant cousin with a highly unlikely name such as wild mint, and the herbal scent of coconut-scented sage are some of my favourites. I often imagine how good it could be as the scent or flavour of a lady’s body butter or cream. Or possibly as a garnish for a delectable gin and tonic as the sun sets over the Drakensberg Mountains to the west. However, I have yet to try this and am not too sure of how good it will taste.
So why do some plants smell?
Although coconut-scented sage smells nice enough for us to make it a scent of a candle, it is not as nice for insects. The aromatic oils in the leaves act as a chemical defence against plant-eating insects or animals, making them unpalatable or difficult to digest. Like us, it is actually attractive to flies which are one of the pollinators of the plant.
For plants, smell is a vital form of communication. Their scents are formed by a combination of complex chemicals that are easily released into the air as volatiles disperse over quite some distance. Simply put, plants produce smells to attract pollinators or deter pests.
Sweet and Floral Smells
Sweet floral smells, like the fragrance of a mopane pomegranate tree or bushveld gardenia, are designed to attract pollinators that are drawn to a sugary aroma, such as honeybees and many butterfly species.
These scents are produced in the petals of a flower, which will help bring the pollinators into the area. This is then combined with the petal shape and colour to highlight the flower as an attractive destination for hungry pollinators. Something important to note is that, for the most part, flowers release their attractive scent during the day are pollinated by bees and butterflies, while flowers that release their scent at night are pollinated by moths and bats.
The strong stench and Rotten meat Smells
Not all pollinators have the same taste. Some are drawn to odours that imitate the smell of rotting flesh and dung — environments that insects like flies and beetles tend to feed and breed in. A good example of this is the carrion flower and spike thorn trees, which produce a fragrance that is not very appealing to us as it resembles that of a decomposing corpse, but to the flies, this is irresistible.
Herbal and Minty Smells
The minty, oily, or sharp smells produced when you crush a leaf or stem also play a defensive role against some predators. The strong, bitter scent works to deter pests like aphids, slugs, or even bigger animals. For example, sage and wild aniseed are believed to repel some species of hares, while plants like garlic can repel squirrels.
These smells are also great for essential oils. I was once struggling with nasal congestion, and Advice Ngwenya (my good friend and tracker) suggested that I collect some wild mint leaves to drop in hot water and inhale the steam infused with the scent of the mint. After doing it for a few days, the issue was completely gone.
Plant smells are not just pleasant for humans or the inspiration for different scents of candles or gin flavours. They are very important for the ecosystem; the leopard that we view here at Londolozi is alive because without that tree it is lying in, it wouldn’t be able to escape threats, and the tree that you see would not exist without its pollinators that were attracted to the smell of its flowers. Everything that exists in the wild has a place and a reason why it does what it does. We as humans should really learn the benefits of plants and how they can help the environment we live in, or how they can even help heal us.