Sweet vernal grass

If you live in grass-growing country (as I do here in the southwest of England), one of the most elusive and evocative scents of summer is the smell of the sweet vernal grass – as charming in its name as in its perfume. It flowers from spring onwards, but is at its best in June and July.

Anthoxanthum odoratum is a rather unobtrusive small grass of unimproved pastures and meadows, not welcomed by farmers as it is poor forage and rather short-lived.

Its redeeming feature is its fragrance – noticeable on warm sunny days and especially when it’s dried (in hay for example). This is mainly due to the coumarin molecule – also found in cinnamon. It’s said to smell of vanilla. Smells are notoriously hard to describe*, but that seems inaccurate to me. Anyway, find a wildflower meadow and have a good sniff and see what you think!

* When I was a chemical analyst after I graduated, one of the reagents I worked with was periodic acid – that’s ‘per-iodic’, not as in ‘periodic table’ – which much to my surprise smells very much like fresh laundry off the washing line!