Scents of the Canyon


What Smells?

After all this glorious rain, the canyon is alive with earthy scents that linger in the cool, moist air of the trails. One of the many experiences that Laguna Canyon Foundation’s educators share with the young students as they hike through the canyon is what to smell: white sage (pictured), California sagebrush, everlasting, and bladderpod, just to name a few.

The educators teach the children how the local Native Americans, the Acjachemen, used white sage as a purifying incense at ceremonies and gatherings (and still do today). “Tar,” “cannabis,” and “lemon” are some of the words used to describe the scent of white sage. Quite a variety, right? And that is the beauty of the whole olfactory experience. We all sense scents differently.

The Acjachemen used California sagebrush as insect repellent and as bedding to drive away fleas. Folklore has it that it was also used by cowboys to mask their sweaty body odor after a long day herding cattle, thus its nickname “cowboy cologne.” For the most part, California sagebrush gets the children’s top vote for the best smelling. “Kinda minty,” says one student. “Smells like something my mom uses in the kitchen,” says another.

Everlasting, also known as cudweed, has a very interesting name as well as an interesting scent. Most people think of maple syrup when they smell it; a few think of vanilla. Recently, a fifth grade student, Angel, said it smelled like a pencil, to which the educator gave him a high five. “I get that connection,” she said. “A pencil is made from wood, or bark; maple syrup comes from wood and bark.”

 

What Stinks?

Then there are the less celebrated creatures and plants of the canyon that may rival in pungency but don’t get as much love, because frankly, they stink.

When hiking by a bladderpod, the students chuckle at the name and the “bladders” dangling from its stems. Most don’t like the smell, which has been likened to “burnt hair” and “burnt popcorn,” but, the educators explain, the bladderpod is a source of pollen for bees, nectar for hummingbirds, and shade for many animals, providing vital resources for the ecosystem.

If you’ve ever hiked in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, you’ve likely seen the stink beetle – a long-legged black bug about an inch in length – usually wandering around a little aimlessly. Most of the children will scream when they see it or try to poke it, which, of course, the educators forbid. With all the commotion, the stink beetle will do what stink beetles do: stick up its hind end into the air, as if doing a headstand, ready to squirt its chemical-smelling liquid to ward off predators. The scene turns into yet another teaching moment. The students learn that stink beetles, with their rather humble moniker, provide a great service in the open space. They are decomposers, breaking down organic matter, including animal waste.

Who wouldn’t take the dare to grab a big whiff of a plant called stinking gourd? Most of us would shun the idea, and with good reason. You don’t have to be anywhere close to that plant to smell what some describe as “dirty socks,” “body odor,” and “sulfur.” But, as with all native plants in our open space, stinking gourd has its role. The Acjachemen used its seeds for meal and its roots as soap. Sometimes called the “coyote gourd,” its fruit is a source of food for the coyote.

 

Stinks? Smells? Potato? Potahto?

With all our social media use, we can share much, including many of the beautiful sights and sounds of the open space. We cannot share smells digitally. That experience needs to be in person. So, go smell for yourself! What stinks to some is beautiful perfume to others. As the saying goes, “That’s why God made chocolate and vanilla.”

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