My best friend absolutely loves fabric conditioners and room fresheners with names like Floral 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 by my dear old pal, smelled. Of fabric conditioner. It was sweet, sickly, and nasally penetrating to an alarming degree. I had to find my dressing gown and drape it across the end of the duvet, and lay a towel across the pillows. Sleep came wonderfully quickly.
The same sort of invented scents are everywhere – in hotels and pubs and cafes, in shops and houses (even your best friend's!).
These ‘fresheners’ (oh so falsely named!) are the olfactory equivalent of Muzak, in that they irritate and nag constantly at your senses. Such manufactured scents are far worse than the crude aromas that so many young people seem to favour because, mostly, the young do not linger with their elders. They are not a constant presence, electrically beat pulsed into the air, making my heart knock in a most unpleasant way.
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? And on the whole the beautiful scents come from plants with a lot of other uses too.
Spring is a good time to revolt against the dark days of winter, and a lot more besides. 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.
By May the delights of the aromatic herbs are increasing in power – lavender, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, mint and the wonderful deodorisers, sage, fennel and parsley. Sage prevents odours forming on the skin – hence its use in so many foot products – and both parsley and fennel are wonderfully aromatic too, and have their uses too 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. And can be unalluring enough to creepie-crawlies to be used in bedstraw and in ridding the intestines of worms.
Southernwood isn’t my favourite but it illustrates perfectly the immensity of Nature – that she can produce extraordinary aromas which are also accompanied by endlessly useful medicinal and household purposes. Lavender – from the French ‘lavandre’ (to wash) – was the classic laundry herb; marjoram, sage and rosemary all have strong antiseptic characteristics 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 in most English gardens and hedgerows 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. These, just as ours, have stupendous aromas and equally marvellous extra-curricular characteristics.
The aromas are endless and fascinating. And often quite easy to extract and keep, remaining truly fabulous. 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 (you can buy them too, they’re also known as hydrolats or hydrosols) and put it in your iron. There are, in essence, 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! She’d understand, I know.