The Power of Scent: How Garden Aromas Can Enhance Well-being

by Jade Shutes

The Garden Smellscape

Our sense of smell has an undeniable power to affect our moods and mental states. Inhaling the fragile aroma of a flower or aromatic plant can lift our spirits and calm anxieties. Catching the earthy scent of soil on a spring day can conjure up memories and connections we’ve forgotten. Aromas subtly permeate our consciousness, evoking emotions and sensations that visual beauty alone cannot.

Research shows natural aromas like lavender, pine, or mint can actually help reduce stress and anxiety. The aromas interact with our limbic system, the part of the brain controlling emotions and behavior.

In a world filled with harsh synthetic scents, creating spaces abundant with natural aromas could have profound benefits.

Thoughtfully designed gardens and parks can become true “smell sanctuaries,” allowing people to unplug from stress and plug into a more meditative mindset. By engaging this primal sense, we just may be able to think more clearly, relate more deeply, and heal more holistically.

The Research

A study was conducted at the Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden in Sweden over a 5-year period. The garden is part of a 12-week nature-based rehabilitation program for people with stress-related mental disorders such as exhaustion and depression. Activities include horticulture therapy, psychotherapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. The multi-sensory garden environment is designed to stimulate the senses with a diverse array of plants. 59 participants took part in the study after completing the rehabilitation program. They were interviewed about their experiences and perceptions of the garden smellscape. The responses were analyzed to identify key themes and mechanisms related to how natural scents affected the participants.

Key Findings

1. Natural vs artificial scents

Participants clearly distinguished between natural garden/plant smells and artificial odors from things like perfumes and cleaning products. Natural aromas were associated with overwhelmingly positive emotions like joy, calm, and happiness. Artificial scents were described as unpleasant, intrusive and capable of inducing stress. 

2. Impact on stress and awareness

The garden smells acted as a catalyst to enhance sensory perception, especially for those suffering from hypersensitivity. Slowly inhaling the scent of plants and soil helped relieve stress and bring focus to the present moment. Touching fragrant plants became an intentional stress reduction technique.

3. Powerful memory trigger

Nature aromas evoked positive childhood memories for many participants, like time spent gardening with grandparents. These scent-triggered memories elicited strong feelings of happiness. They helped reconnect people to more peaceful times, transporting them mentally away from current stresses.

4. Seasonal/environmental differences

The intensity and variety of aromas shifted with the seasons both indoors and outdoors. The hot, humid greenhouse smelled more strongly of plants like pelargonium geraniums in winter. Outside, the fresh smells of spring blossoms and earth were noted as the weather warmed.

A Special Aroma – Pelargonium

One particular plant and its scent really stood out for having exceptional healing qualities – Pelargonium. Varieties of scented geraniums with aromas of rose, mint, lemon, orange and other essences elicited very positive reactions. The lemony scent seemed to have an uplifting, invigorating effect described as a “kick for the brain.”

Many participants took pelargonium cuttings home with them as living reminders of their therapeutic garden experiences. Having their own scented geranium plants allowed them to continue using the aromas for stress relief after the program ended. The aromatic leaves could also be brewed into relaxing teas. 

Implications for Healing Garden Design

This study highlights the importance of fragrant plant selection in healing and restorative gardens. Participants clearly articulated how natural scents enhanced their garden experience and supported their therapy process in ways visual beauty alone could not.

Some best practice tips based on the findings:

    • Focus on plants with scented leaves or flowers like geraniums, lavender, lemon verbena, rose, mints, citrus and herbs.
    • Incorporate plants that release stronger fragrances when touched or crushed.
    • Provide variety to offer an array of aromas that shift throughout the seasons.
    • Use plants like pelargonium geraniums that elicit positive emotional responses.
    • Allow friends and family to take mini-cuttings home to prolong aromatherapy benefits.

With mindful plant selection and placement, the aromas of a garden can work in concert with visual plant qualities to create a deeply restorative, calming and joyful environment. When designed with scent as a priority, gardens have the power to enhance relaxation, connect us to positive memories, reduce anxiety, and transport our minds to a peaceful place.

Human Impact Perspective

This research highlights the profound impact that natural aromas can have on our mental states. In a world filled with synthetic smells and overpowering perfumes, the subtle scents of plants and soil can provide a welcome respite. Seeking out and cultivating these natural smellscapes, whether in gardens or nature, is a simple way to tap into aromatherapy benefits. Allowing our olfactory sense to reconnect us to more mindful, joyful states.

Reference

Pálsdóttir, A. M., Spendrup, S., Mårtensson, L., & Wendin, K. (2021). Garden smellscape-experiences of plant scents in a nature-based intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 667957. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.667957