Summer’s Sweetest Scent

I sense it the moment they open.  The air is instantly different.  Heavier with fragrance, yet lighter and warmer with summer’s sweetest scent.   It is as if the world has stopped.  And I am encapsulated within a gossamer cocoon, spun of the perfume of tiny yellow blooms peeking out shyly from among the silvery green leaves of its tree.

You cannot even see them, until looking close.  Close enough to notice their bright yellow eyes, their sweet scent almost visibly aloft in pale waves upon the summer’s evening air, proclaiming dreamily that summer is here.


I’d love to bottle their sensory beauty, corking it carefully airtight, and displaying it reverently upon a shelf.  But it wouldn’t be enough to just look at it.  I wouldn’t be able to resist its summery magnetism, opening it slowly with its soft scent taking me back to June, no matter the month.

One summer evening years ago, as they were just beginning to unfurl their fragrant blooms, I thought there could be nothing more perfect than cutting a few branches to put in a vase in my house.  I imagined their perfume lightly scenting my entire house, waking me in the mornings with their sheer, veiled aura.  But after only a few hours, their scent had fermented into something hotly putrid and overpowering.  I’m not sure if it was their anger at being cut from their mother trees or the extremely close proximity, but I quickly realized that some things are better left unrestrained, wild and floating freely on the hint of a summer breeze.  That they just cannot be bridled and harnessed into a vase indoors.  They must be aloft upon the breeze, their yellow scented pollen riding happily to destinations unknown.  Their strong scent diluted with the warmth of the air, moving and swirling their fragrance here, there and everywhere.

Of all the many scents in the world, I know it is my favorite. It is memories of small towns in summer, of tall grass growing green in the hay fields, swaying with the breeze like a loosely-threaded tide.   It is memories of summer concerts, the music rising and mingling with their perfume upon the still summer air.  Of barbecued ribs, and warm evenings not yet disturbed by the hum of mosquitos, serenaded with its sweet scent upon the dusk.  It is the feeling of night’s coolness slowly filtering across our little valley from the wet rushing of the river, dampening the grass and the day’s memories with dew.  And in the morning, its perfume rises again, lifted from its tiny yellow petals to be wafted upon the light air for another day.

How I wish it lasted all summer, this perfect essence of fragrance.  Ushering us into and out of summertime, like a graceful doorman, visible with the first opening of the glass door to summertime, but almost unnoticeable the remainder of the summer with his well-trained etiquette and quiet existence.  Eventually they would escort us out of summer without even a goodbye, only the faint fading of their scented beauty growing slighter and slighter, until we no longer even miss their presence.

Alas, we are blessed with but a week of heaven in June.  Maybe that makes its arrival all the sweeter, and its exit all the more lonely in its abrupt end.  Its short-lived aromatic culmination something relegated to just memory again for another year

So as the lovely season of the fragrant Russian Olives draws to an end, may you find the time to be still, soaking up the most of what comes around just once a season.  May you enjoy the sweet scent of summertime upon the warm breeze and may you relish the many blessings summer brings.

*As a footnote, I feel I must tell you that the Russian Olive tree is an outlaw.  It is a foreign species that gained notoriety for its overtaking of western river banks since it was introduced to the US in the late 1800’s.  But in its defense, it is without a doubt, a scrappy survivor.  With shoots of sharply-thorned branches hurtling forth from its trunk almost daily, it doesn’t mourn for the weak.   Their roots ground them in odd places, unfit for other trees.  They thrive in sand and poor soil, reaching deeper and deeper for water and nutrients. And according to multiple sources, their roots can produce their own nitrogen, allowing them to grow even in nutrient-deprived soil.  They have a bad habit of out competing our native trees and shrubs in wild areas and they enlist the help of our feathered friends, who gorge upon the tree’s ripened berries, to disperse their seeds.  The Russian Olive is currently classified as an invasive species in Colorado and 29 other states.  For this reason,Colorado banned the sale of Russian Olive trees within the state to its residents in 2002.


Prelude to Summer

The first to bloom were the purple irises in a large clump.  From chiffon-shrouded buds, they curled their purple petals open, revealing a hint of glimmering gold.  They stood tall, their grape fragrance catching you just as you passed by, causing you to look again, surely that grape scent hadn’t come from them?  But it had, and as a slight breeze carried their fragrant symphony delicately forth, the bees buzzed and hummed, enjoying summer’s first taste of song.

Then it was a tight ball of a peony bud, bursting open with its huge, single petals as if proclaiming, “Look at me!  I am the first of the peonies, none can surely be as magnificent!”  And they may not be, because nothing is as amazing as that first peony exploding into bright bloom in the garden, no matter its color, its size or its type.  From atop strong, tall stems, my first-born peony of the summer looks across its counterparts in the garden, crowning itself with a golden center of bright stamens.  And nothing quite prepares you for the disappointment as its concerto quickly fades and one by one its petals lose their grip, and flutter to the ground.  Their beautiful interlude just a memory, as its dark petals stain the rocks pink with morning dew.

From tight-coiled cones, my white allium were next on stage.  Their stems swelled and swelled until one morning, feathery white headdresses emerged.  Theirs was a soft minuet formed with the slight scent of an onion and chive-like stalks, waving gently in the breeze.  And their small clumps throughout my garden performed long-blooming solos in white.  The only white blooms in my garden, they warrant a standing ovation for their brave deviance from the bright colors that take over later in the summer.

Without intermission, an heirloom yellow shrub rose performed a final, golden overture among its deep green, glossy leaves.  The morning sun’s light setting their petals aflame. In an instant, they seemed to go from bud to bloom to flailed petals, scattering on the ground below.  A brief, yet lovely, sonata of color, fragrance and thorns.  Here now, gone tomorrow, nothing but a golden dream blurred sharply in our minds.

There are certain times in life where the work just must stop, the music must be heard and the world’s most beautiful moments must be applauded.  The weeding could wait.  The watering could wait.  These were times to look over the first of my blooming bounty, cherishing the very magnificence of an iridescent, silken petal tempted open by the sun’s warm encouragement.  This was a time to watch in wonder as butterflies descended from windy heights, swirling madly, but somehow ending upright atop a pollen-encrusted bloom.  This was a time to feel excitement like goosebumps on my arms, for the magical, visual sound that is just beginning, each new bloom an instrument, only just refraining at the final stanza of their prelude.

And as all these instruments of a springtime garden came together, a late spring orchestra culminated in one grand crescendo, diminishing back down with sweet, soft notes . . . promising a symphony yet to come.

And so it begins . . .

It finally arrived.  The day I’ve dreamt about for the past six months.  The moment you whisk through the doors of a plastic-encased shrine to all things budding and blooming.  The warm smell of fragrant, green-leafed humidity and rich, perlite-dotted soil envelopes you immediately, fanned around you lightly by huge metal blades whisping slowly at the other end of this inverted half-pipe of flora and fauna.  An array of pots beckoning you, enticing you with bright colors, textures and opportunities and the unequivocal instant emotion of hopeful inspiration.

There is just nothing quite like that first deep breath of the summer season inhaled in a greenhouse.  That moment when all things seem possible, even the deep burgundy-robed miniature calla lily hidden in the corner, out of sight of its much humbler Zone 4 flowering neighbors.  Who’s to say how its exotic beauty even made it close to this place, with delicate blooms not well suited for Colorado’s cool nights and short summers.  Maybe it hitchhiked, escaping its hot, humid home, catching a free ride with a delivery van undiscovered, destination unknown.  But somehow, at that moment, even this tropical variety seems do-able.

The possibilities are endless.  As are the trips up and down the aisles.  Slowly surveying the wondrous displays of seeds, turned seedlings, thinned and transplanted, fed and fertilized until robust, with blooms stretched upward as if arms waving at you boldly, saying “Pick me!  Pick me!”

And the competition is stiff.  Pinks, yellows, reds, purple, orange and even blue.  Tall, short, bold, delicate.  The bright eyes of the almost-neon-bright geraniums follow you carefully up and down the aisles, the queens of potted annuals keeping a close eye on their rows of supporting actors.  The sweet, faces of pansies smiling innocently, nodding at you as you pass.

Bright marigolds, uncurling their ruffled arms, laughing happily in deep oranges and yellows.

White bacopa and periwinkle lobelia trail down their pots, following you, begging you to take them with you.

As I scoured the rows over and over today, not so much undecided as simply admiring the beauty, the fragrance and the first of this summer’s blooming bounty, a light mist of small raindrops began tinkling lightly upon the clear plastic roof over us.  Summer’s first sweet orchestra, playing gently and rhythmically, lulling me to wish I could sleep if just for a moment in this perfect place among the flowers, awakening later to their fragrant harmonies of color and the scent of freshly fallen rain.

But today, the afternoon will have to be enough.  I will leave what remains in the care of the fluttering butterflies and sphinx moths, carefully wafting from one flower to the next.

May you enjoy the first of summer’s blessings and embrace the hope of the nearly endless possibilities it offers.

Out of Evening’s Dim Light

Oh the wonder and magic of this beautiful creature, visible only in those dim moments between evening and darkness.  Almost like a dream where you’re not sure you could have possibly seen something so beautiful, then fleeting, gone in just a moment, only the hum of fluttering wings ringing within your memory.

It came out of nowhere.  In a flutter of wings it was suddenly near the light as if drawn to me, knowing its destiny and assuming it just the same.  It was beautiful.  Enormous, flickering wings fanning the bright light.  Every so often, you could catch a glimpse of salmon-ish, pink red along its wings, broken up by thick black lines and softer, muted brown and bright white stripes.  I couldn’t believe this living thing had made its unfortunate appearance on this night, the night I was to be finishing my 6th grade science project which involved finding, killing and impaling insect specimens with straight pins.  The final result would be a cigar box version of a scientific shadowbox.  As scientific as 6th grade could get, with one wing held open and the insect’s genus and species info listed below, it would be displayed permanently, held forever in a moment.   It was an opportunity I felt had fluttered directly into my hand, an opportunity to have the biggest, the best, a beautiful, mysterious moth destined for my project.  Surely no one would have a moth like this.  This was no mere insect, this had to be a rare winged mammal of some sort.  I had never seen a moth so furry, so wondrous, so . . . big.

My parents helped me.  We somehow trapped the huge winged insect against the ceiling near the bright light with a glass mason jar.  It was like a bird, with wings so broad, it couldn’t flutter into flight from within the jar.  It was doomed.

Next came poison, in the form of a cotton ball soaked pink with nail polish remover.  I still remember dropping the wet cotton ball into that glass jar, my heart aching, wishing I wouldn’t do it, but knowing . . . I would.  Before even dropping it, regretting what I was about to do.  Taking the life of something living, something beautiful, something that would have wanted us to release it back into the dim dusk of evening, content with the just the memory of its beauty.


A majestic Whitelined Sphinx -- photo courtesy of Colorado State University

The problem was:  I had friends, teachers to impress.  I wanted to be the best.  I doubted anyone else in my class had ever laid their eyes upon such a majestic creature of the insect world, let alone displayed it proudly in their cigar box for all to see.   Surely, this would all be worth it.

The day of judgment was to come, the due date for our cigar box projects.  Grasshoppers, beetles and spiders all with their dead legs splayed out in unnatural, natural form, held in place with silver straight pins and labels, like headstones beneath them, with their common and scientific names listed.  Some legs went missing, cracked off in their frail states.  Grasshopper wings crackled in their delicacy, leaving miniature shards of glass-like transparency underneath their bodies.  The spider specimens seemed to be the most difficult.  Getting their dead, dry legs to appear normal and alive with pins didn’t work in any of the displays, our cigar boxes with nothing more to show than black and brown spider bodies, legs curled up in rigor mortis underneath them.

My majestic, rare Sphinx moth, it turns out, wasn’t that rare.  There were others, two to be exact.

I’d like to say this experience in the 6th grade was the last of its kind, that I learned my lesson by way of moth brutality.  Sadly it’s a battle that reappears often.  The desire to be the best, to have more, to win at all costs (moth lives not withstanding) is a constant battle in our society today.  Aren’t we engrained with these thoughts from early on?  That 1st place wins, winners take all and that 2nd place is just the first loser?  Blue ribbons, trophies and medals are things we are taught to want, to work for and to covet.  But at what cost?

Today’s society has alternately morphed into one of political correctness, of fairness and equality.  Maybe it is in response to the over-competitive pressure that we felt growing up.  Now every child gets an award.  Is this better or worse?  Have we only just diluted competitive desire with the notion that an award will come, regardless of our effort?  Are we creating a false sense of achievement, maybe even dare I say, the “entitlement” that we hear so much of now with younger generations, mine included?

It is a fine line in today’s world between wanting it all and feeling we deserve it all.  We can’t have it all and we certainly don’t deserve it all.  Maybe we too, find ourselves in the dim light between day and dusk, wanting to land lightly upon all the flowers.  But with impending darkness looming in the horizon, we too are forced to do what we can in a short space of time, with only the hope to return tomorrow to do a little more.

I still harbor guilt over the innocent moth, that happened upon the wrong bunch of fragrant flowers that led him to the bright light inside my house that night long ago.  And that instantly regrettable moment, where he was caught, stolen out of his natural habitat and suffocated with chemicals, only to be pinned in death’s dark drab within a cigar box as his final, lonely resting place.

This past summer, my Sphinx moth reappeared reincarnated, brought back to life by the pungent perfume of purple petunias.  It had been years since I had seen one.  He became a regular nightly visitor, lured by flowers bright enough to notice in diminishing light.  He would make his rounds, fluttering easily upon the evening air, lofting this way and that.  Never in the bright light of day, but just as the sun would sink into the Western sky, he would magically appear for an evening dinner with the sun’s last light fading into night’s darkness.

I think of the old moth, pinned haphazardly by 12 year old hands, wings spread as if in frozen flight.  It reminds me that beauty cannot be caught or stolen, pinned down and held in a moment forever. Rather beauty lives on by memory of that fleeting, perfect moment that cannot be captured, but wafts gently upon the sweet summer breeze, lighting upon purple flowers before disappearing into the dark edges of our souls again.