It’s been a fairly mild winter so far, one that I’d characterize, up this point, as a “paperwhite winter” since mine are blooming and haven’t been blasted to the ground with a severe freeze. Since I’m closer to I-20 than I-10, I’d say we average good paperwhite blooms about once out of every ten years. But these early blooming heirlooms are known as much for the olfactory stimulation as they are for their weather forecasts.
In the world of floral fragrances, one peculiar bloom stands out, both for its delicate beauty and its unique aroma. Enter the paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus), a Texas tough member of the amaryllis family known for its clusters of pure white blossoms. But here’s the twist that has puzzled garden enthusiasts for generations—the enchanting blooms of this Mediterranean native emit a scent often likened to (at least for some) feces.
Before we delve into the less-than-pleasant aspects, let’s acknowledge the undeniable charm and tenacity of paperwhites. Their snowy petals create a cheerful sight, making them a popular choice for indoor forcing during the winter months. They also make low maintenance, long-lived perennials for those in the Coastal South, especially near or below I-10. But, as any seasoned gardener knows, it’s not just the sight, it’s the smell that confounds our relationship with them.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question—why on earth do these beautiful blooms sometimes exude an aroma that’s reminiscent of something found in an outhouse rather than a townhouse? To answer this, we need to dive into the fascinating worlds of floral chemistry, botany, and evolution.
In the natural world, scents play a crucial role in the survival strategies of many plants. For some, it’s about attracting pollinators with sweet fragrances. For others, like the paperwhite, the strategy involves more complex scents to attract specific pollinators.
Paperwhites, it turns out, have evolved to attract certain insects including bees, flies, butterflies, and moths. Before you turn up your noses, let’s appreciate the fact that paperwhites, like most insect pollinated plants, have tapped into a niche pollination market, ensuring that their genetic legacy continues with the help of their flying friends.
The source of the peculiar scent lies in the chemical compounds present in the paperwhite blooms. Sulphur-containing compounds, such as indole, contribute to the floral aroma that, to our human noses, might trigger associations with less pleasant scents. However, to certain flying insects, these compounds signal a banquet of opportunity.
Lest you think that you know all the poop there is to know about making scents out of paperwhites, consider this. According to Mat Yudov in a 2017 article for fragrantica.com the fragrance of narcissus is formed by a range of different molecular entities. This complex combination is formed by a range of different molecular entities including trans-β-ocimene (a woody-flowery scent), α-farnesene (a green herbal-citrusy scent with lavender and apple shades), para-dimethoxybenzene (a sweet herbal scent with tobacco and earthy shades), indole (a heavy, “hypnotic” floral scent recalling jasmine), benzyl acetate (the fresh floral scent of jasmine), methyl benzoate (ylang-ylang, wintergreen, almond), phenylethyl alcohol (rose), and linalool oxide (floral, green).
However, much like the flavor of cilantro, those that associate the small amount of indole fragrance with poop, can’t seem to get it out of their head or noses. Afterall, indole is also a component of e-coli and sometimes even urine. To make matters even worse (if that’s possible), there can even apparently be traces of skatole (“pee”) fragrance in paperwhites.
But before you flush your paperwhites down the toilet, be aware that this same indole fragrance is found in many highly perfumed white flowers including jasmine, tuberose, gardenia, lilies, and orange blossoms. These, including paperwhites, are all fragrances that I enjoy. But much has to do with concentration and how much it is diffused in the air. After all, the idea is to attract insects from as far away as possible.
In the same 2017 fragrantica.com article, Sergey Borisov thinks more like I do and states, “I adore the aroma of narcissus flowers. I consider it a miracle that such a gentle flower has shades both green and flowery-fresh, animalic and dense – any part of its scent is enough to create a finished composition.”
In a 2021 salacious wildveilperfume.com blog (Paperwhite Narcissus), Abigail Hinsman is a fan as well writing, “Paperwhite narcissus carries a rich jasmine scent with the nosefeel of butter. Stiff, like overwhipped cream.” She goes on to say, “Paperwhites display a fruit aroma that is muted and confectionary, like candied cherries and fondant.” She dives even deeper with more personal descriptions! Perfume folks are serious about their craft.
But those that don’t like the fragrance of paperwhites take this s—, well “stuff,” serious too. Case in point. While working on this blog I picked a small bouquet of paperwhites and set them next to my computer. One hour later, Mrs. G comes through our old farmhouse saying, “What is that God awful smell?!” She thought one of her cats had made a deposit on the floor and insisted our Cat Biggie was all puffed up because he thought some other visiting cat and made a deposit nearby. She went on to toss the flowers out (my Granny Emanis wouldn’t allow them inside either) and proceeded to strike matches and light candles to hide the scent. Good grief. I told her one of the comments on the perfume blogs said equating indole fragrances to feces was “juvenile”, but she quickly told me to tell them to take their paperwhites and poo straight to hell, or at least out of her house.
But fragrance is just one part of the pollination puzzle. Bloom time, color, evolution, and floral part structure all play their part as well.
A Journal of Ecology paper titled Long-tongued insects promote disassortative pollen transfer in style-dimorphic Narcissus papyraceus found that some wild paperwhites had evolved with longer styles in their floral tubes to accommodate bees and hoverflies while others had evolved with short styles accessible only to moths and butterflies. Flowers, plants, and nature in general are truly amazing and fascinating.
My favorite take of all is from fragrance author, Elena Vosnaki (Mixing the Foul with the Fragrant: The Mystery of Indole ~ Raw Materials ~ Fragrantica), where she writes “Last but not least, many of the modern white floral fragrances purposefully bypass the questionable indolic smell. This is no doubt due to modern sensibilities which champion a totally deodorized and artificially scented self as the hallmark of the civilized individual. Consideration of one’s neighbor, one’s mate, one’s colleague, one’s fellow shopper or cinema watcher indicates that you should avoid anything that might offend, even if imperceptibly. And the more uneducated people are on the matter of perfume, the more they’re attuned to questionable scents I find. It might have to do with learning to appreciate the foul or with accepting our own mortality alongside the decay of plant life and the evanescent, dying nature of perfume itself. Whatever it is, indolic perfumes are a fascinating journey for the perfume lover and one which truly is a rite of passage.”
I think I’ll avoid sharing Elena’s crap with Mrs. G.