Savvy to Scent

Mmmm… pine, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, orange… are you with me? Can you conjure this classic mix of scents? Does it bring you back to a certain memory, holiday or person?


Dry ingredients for our “Winter Sunset” potpourri.

Drawing on the connection between olfactory perception (sense of smell) and emotions and memories is a strong card in the hand of Horticultural Therapy. And, although I’m a teacher, certified and all, I’m also a trained horticulture therapist  who believes strongly in the benefits of using plants and gardening for education as well as therapy. From the very young to seniors, offering opportunities to tap into one’s sense of smell (and specialized sensory cells) can be a powerful tool in reaching and stimulating areas of the brain that otherwise may not be activated.

The final project in our garden-inspired gift-giving series, potpourri, was mixed up this week with great enthusiasm! To begin with, my students were offered three muslin bundles and asked to smell each one. They were filled with three different spices, each featured in our recipe: cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. Students could not see what was inside the bundle, but they were lettered for later identification. Most were able to identify cinnamon and a few even named the cloves. Some thought the star anise was fennel, which is understandable because they both smell of licorice. And having worked with fennel in our tea-making lessons, I was very excited that students recalled both the scent and the name of this particular spice that we harvested from our own garden in late summer through fall.

Kristen prepares her pine sprigs for our potpourri recipe.

Kristen prepares her pine sprigs for our potpourri recipe.

What was most interesting was to hear the associations that students would make. A few (in different classes) remarked that the clove scent reminded them of their grandfather. Other connections to the cloves included baked ham and spiked orange decorations hung during the holiday season. Cinnamon reminded many students of oatmeal and various baked goods. While a few students disliked the scent of the cloves or star anise, you could see the focus on faces as they tried to find the frame of reference in their schema that a particular scent was evoking. (Schema is a term used in education and psychology, meaning a cognitive framework that helps our brain organize and interpret information in the world around us. Imagine a huge filing cabinet in your mind, filled with files. Each file is for a specific topic, packed with the knowledge, experiences and emotions you have acquired throughout life connected to this topic.)

After our olfactory investigations, students set about mixing the assigned ingredients for our custom “Winter Sunset” recipe in a Ziploc bag. I warned them that the smell would be quite potent, but not to worry, in a week’s time when we transfer our potpourri to a special organza sachet, the smell will mellow and mature (a nice analogy to their growth from childhood to adulthood) creating a whole new aroma that will add an amazing smell to wherever they placed their finished project.


Jordan and Aaron enjoy a cup of tea and a laugh at the end of class.

Hopefully it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that some new associations, new skills, positive memories and some new knowledge have been added to the filing cabinets in each of my students’ minds. And in the future, when the smell of cloves, pine or cinnamon catch their noses, they might just be brought back to a sunny day in garden class at Green Chimneys.


About Green Chimneys Garden

Green Chimneys was founded on the belief that children will benefit from their interaction with nature and animals. Horticulture comes to life in our educational school gardens, allowing Green Chimneys students to heal, learn, and grow. Learn more about about our nature-based approach to special education by visiting
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