Fragrant damp season flowers

Everyone knows the famous cherry blossom of Japan. Not so many know what has been making half of the prefecture smell so sweet over the last month or so. It was driving me a bit nuts wondering what it was, and I remembered it happening last autumn in Gifu too, at around the time it was finally starting to cool down. I remember wandering around sniffing all these trees and flowers to find which one was making the apricot smell. Well, this year I found out.

Sweet osmanthus

The culprit: sweet osmnathus

In Japanese it’s called kinmokusei (金木犀  きんもくせい ) and in English, sweet olive, tea olive, sweet osmanthus, or fragrant olive. I don’t think it looks all that olive-y, myself, but there you go. The ‘sweet’ and ‘fragrant’ parts definitely make sense. The smell can be quite strong, and while I like it, I can understand how if you were feeling sick it might be overpowering. Blogger Sandra in Japan reckons it was used in toilet deodorisers from the ’70s to the ’90s and gained a strong association there, and since has not been a popular scent for toiletries. I guess this is like how pine smells like cleaning products to many noses these days, and doesn’t make a popular drink flavour, for example. I know this because I bought some pine liqueur in Austria once and enjoyed it until someone said it smelled like a cleaning product.

According to Wiki, sweet osmanthus is native to Asia: from the Himalayas down to some of southeast Asia and across to southern Japan. That makes sense, because I didn’t notice it my first year up in the north of Japan.

Another scent I didn’t notice in my first year in Japan, but have noticed in Brisbane, Melbourne and southern Japan is – get ready – pittosporum tobira. In English it’s known as mock orange, Japanese mock orange, Australian laurel, and Japanese pittosporum. Apparently in Japanese it’s トベラ (tobera), thought to have come from tobira 扉 とびら, meaning ‘door’ which was because the tree looked like it was making a door/gate with its branches. This from a Japanese site. It’s native to China, Japan and Korea, says Wiki, so I’m not sure who called it Australian laurel, but it does grow in Australia.

Pittosporum tobira, a.k.a. tobera. Image:

Pittosporum tobira, a.k.a. tobera. Image from here

The scent is, again, sweet, but more citrusy than osmanthus, and definitely more subtle. Some people think it smells like jasmine, lilies or orange blossoms. I was sniffing all over streets in Brisbane, Melbourne and Hiroshima before identifying the plant with the help of my aunt who was visiting in June this year. June is the best time to catch the smell of tobira in southern Japan, and is also when the ajisai (aka hydrangeas) should be in full bloom. It’s also the official rainy season.

When does tobira make its scent in Australia? I don’t remember. Late spring? Early summer?



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