Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The plant that smells more like curry than curry

If you fancy a weird botanical experience, visit Kew Gardens on a relatively mild day when there isn’t much wind and stroll down The Broad Walk from the Orangery restaurant towards Victoria Gate. As you pass by the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the smell of curry will be so strong, you’ll be looking around for the Indian restaurant it must be emanating from.

The culprit is an inoffensive-looking flowering plant situated at least ten yards from where you’ll be. I’m not talking one of those vague “scents” oenophiles go on about – you know, “I’m getting blackberries and onions and a hint of tar”, which 95% of us can’t pick up in any case. No, this is more the kind of smell you get when the waiter puts a steaming plate of Vindaloo on the table in front of you. The smell reaches right into your nose and duffs up your sinuses: it is that strong. In fact, I’d class it as a pong.

My sense of smell isn’t that acute, but my wife has the sort of olfactory capabilities normality only found in bloodhounds (which is how I know I’m a pretty fragrant sort of chap, as chaps go). And yet, despite having tried to trace the source of the curry fragrance (stench?) on many occasions, she’s never been successful. Whichever nearby bush she approaches, the smell just evaporates the closer she gets – even inserting parts of the plant directly into the nasal cavity has revealed nothing whatsoever.

But today – finally – we found out what’s causing the pen and ink. It’s a pretty ordinary-looking flowering plant called. The honk was so powerful today I could even discern it while smoking a pre-prandial cigar. As we both stood in the middle of the wide avenue, yards from any vegetation, sniffing the air, a guide stopped and, without even asking us what we were up to, told us that the source was escallonia myrtoides (or myrtoidea). We only remembered the name by making up some dialogue from an imaginary sword-and-sandal epic: "The King of Escallonia welcomes mighty Myrtoides. Tonight, you will do us the honour of being our guest. Come, we shall feast on the finest curry in all of Greece!"

The reason no one can ever figure out what’s causing the odour is that the plant itself smells of nothing whatsoever (no, it doesn’t make any sense to me either).

Strolling back the same way after lunch at The Pavillion  (a £4.95 lamb pie, as you ask, which was – seriously – one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted), we both started smelling curry fully two hundred yards away from the plant. And there was barely a breath of wind. Bizarre.

But possibly the strangest thing about this phenomenon is that I can only find one reference to it on the web, in an article by the Associate Curator of the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, here, where it's suggested the plant also smells of maple. No way! This has the Star of Bengal Takeaway written all over it.

By the by, the autumn colours on display in the gardens today – gold, reds and yellows - were as vibrant, intense and beautiful as I’ve ever known them. Naturally, I forgot to take the camera, so here’s a picture from the web that gives some idea of how astonishingly vibrant Kew’s American Smoketree is right now (I wrote about the tree and posted some photographs of it two years ago, here):

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