My best friend absolutely loves fabric conditioners and room fresheners with names like Florally Clean or Airy Heaven. But for me, they spell hell. Last time I stayed with her, I couldn’t sleep, never mind that I was dog-tired. Long into the night something was agitating my senses, something cloying that simply would not fade and I realised that the bed linen, all crisp and beautifully ironed, smelled. Of fabric conditioner. It was sweet, sickly, and penetrated my nasal orifices alarmingly. I had to drape my dressing gown around the duvet's top end, and lay a towel across the pillows. Sleep came quickly.
The same sort of invented scents are everywhere – in hotels and pubs and cafes, in shops and houses. These ‘fresheners’ (so falsely named!) are the olfactory equivalent of Muzak, that irritates and nags insistently. Such manufactured scents are a constant presence, electrically pulsed into the air, making my heart knock and my nose twitch.
We are supposed to believe that they are popular but, frankly, if I were in charge, I’d ban them. Now. Why would anyone opt for them given the abundance of glorious aromas provided by Mother Nature?
Spring is a good time to revolt against the dark days of winter, and revive. In the old days, mattresses stuffed with last summer’s straw and herbs were pitched out. Houses were cleaned, spiderwebs and all manner of critters expelled. Spring potage – a soup full of new grown nettles, violet leaves, ramsons (wild garlic), dandelions, plantain, clover, purslane, parsley, chickweed – was a must, a way of reviving the body with much-needed calcium, vitamins and iron after long dark months with over-salted diets.
And a little later, by May, aromatic herbs are increasing in power – lavender, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, mint and the wonderful deodorisers, sage, fennel and parsley. They all have their individual strengths. Sage, for example, prevents odours forming on the skin – hence its use in so many foot products. Both parsley and fennel are first class calmers of stomachs and breath fresheners.
There are stronger aromatics too, such as the artemisia family, in particular Southernwood which is quite pungent. Its common names – Lad’s Love, Maid’s Ruin among them – suggest has its allure as an aphrodisiac (no explaining these things, is there?). But for many, including me, it's off-putting: I'm with the creepie-crawlies who, if they found it in bedstraw, did a runner. As did intestinal worms if the host imbibed doses of it.
So while Southernwood isn't my favourite, it does illustrate how clever old Nature performs in endlessly complex ways: aromas alongside useful medicinal and household purposes. Take Lavender – a word taken from the French ‘lavandre’ (to wash) – was the classic laundry herb but it is also an antiseptic, a healer, a tension-buster and much more besides. Other kitchen herbs, such as marjoram, sage and rosemary give food their tasty sparkle but each also has strong antiseptic characteristics too so are good for cleaning skin and repelling insects; chamomile and calendula help sleep to come and wounds to heal.
These are plants common enough here to be considered by some as weeds. (Although, as the old saying goes, a weed is just a plant in the wrong place). No doubt other cultures, the herbs and spices we regard as exotic and perhaps more precious, have their "weeds" too: black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamom, camphor, cumin and turmeric among them perhaps. These, just as ours, have stupendous aromas, not to mention a host of other very useful characteristics.Nature's aromas are endless, intriguing and mostly easy to extract and keep. Then use them to your heart's content!
Try drying them – pick a bunch, spread on an oven tray and leave overnight on a low, low temperature. Or putting them in oil – pack a jar with herbs and/or flowers, fill with an odourless oil like sunflower or grapeseed, and leave them on the windowsill for at least a month before straining the oil and bottling it in clean vessels. Or buy their essential oils.
Make a pot pourri of herbs or flowers, or both, drip on a little essential oil if you will; or simply burn the oil. Make (or buy) some pretty herb bags and fill them with dried plants and put them in your drawers or under the pillow. Make flower water (or you can buy them too, they’re also known as hydrolats or hydrosols) and put it in your iron.
There are so many ways to exploit Nature’s superlative and diverse fragrances that it’s very difficult – much as I love her and her endless generosity – to understand or appreciate in any way my old chum’s addiction to the man-made. Ban them, I say! She’d understand, I know.