Published on 07/18/00

Plants' Savory Scents Seduce Our Senses

It's basic biology that through taste receptors, a person can taste four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. However, the average person can distinguish up to 10,000 smells. We're not quite as good as the bloodhound, which can detect more than 400,000 smells. But we do all right.

Just out of my office last spring was a bank of native azaleas -- yellows and oranges, pinks and whites. Every time I went out I just had to go by and enjoy the fragrance. Just down the way are several giant magnolias. Since I was a kid, magnolias have drawn me. I just can't pass them up without getting my nose yellowed.

In horticulture, we try to enhance the quality of life by giving people fruits, flowers and vegetables for consumption and beauty. Fragrance is often a part of that pleasure. Horticultural fragrance enters the picture in many ways. Fragrance's interaction with taste is one of the most delightful.

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Photo: Peggy Greb, USDA-ARS

We can look at fresh produce and just taste how good it is by the fragrance it gives off.

Smell How Good It Will Taste

We look at a fresh, ripe peach and can just taste how good it is by the fragrance it gives off. We brush by a rosemary bush, and it reminds our taste buds of savory lamb or pork, just out of the pan and juicy. I ask kids if they like basil, if they like the smell, if they'd eat it. Usually the answer is no. But their response changes when I tell them they often eat it on pizza.

We say the first tomato of the season tastes great, though many people put on salt or other seasonings, which become the dominant taste.

Exploding Fragrance

As we taste that first tomato, we're tasting the sweetness of the sugars (yes, it does have sugars) and the sour part from the acidity. But most of what we "taste" is the fragrance that explodes inside the mouth when we bite into the fruit. Taste and fragrance or smell combine to give us the entire experience of eating that first great tomato.

Now, if you add basil leaves under that tomato with mozzarella cheese on top and place it all on wonderful Italian bread that has been rubbed with olive oil and garlic and then toasted -- that gives you all the taste and fragrances you can stand or will need for a while.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.