by Mary Whitsell
I grew up in Southern California. Every winter, my father would bring home armloads of fragrant eucalyptus. He would load the back of our station wagon with it, or we would go to gather it together, crunching on the pods and hard, slippery leaves underfoot as we snapped off branches and stripped long pieces of bark from the trees. We would decorate the house with wreaths and bouquets of fresh foliage.
The smell always soothed me and filled me with joy. I’ve heard people describe it as medicinal, but for me it was better than freshly cut grass, without the harsh tang, as gentle on the nose as the butter and honey fragrance of lemon blossom, but filled with peppery spice, like chrysanthemums. Eucalpytus needs the sun in order to release its fragrance. You can put a bunch of it in a vase and forget about it for years and one warm day you walk past it and the smell wafts up at you, as intoxicatingly fresh and sweet as it was the day you first cut it.
At Christmas, our living room room would fill up with the chatter and laughter of friends and relatives, with the fug of their cigarette smoke, the cloying smell of fried food and the combined odor of cheap aftershave and mothballs from everybody’s best clothes, and peppermint candy canes. When they left, the scent of eucalyptus melded with the tangy evergreen spice of the Christmas tree and gradually the air in the room became fresh and sweet again.
Years passed and I moved from Southern California to Scotland, where there are few eucalyptus trees, and none of them are fragrant. One day, my husband and I walked through a department store, past bunches of cheap floral arrangements, plastic flowers interspersed with dried stalks of grass and shrubs. And suddenly I smelled fragrant eucalyptus. We were looking for light bulbs and garden hoses, but as soon as I caught that fragrance, I had to search for the source. I found it in a hideous arrangement of tall pink and maroon plastic flowers mixed with silver-sprayed pussy willow. Each arrangement had two or three thin branches of eucalyptus, but I bought everything there was. Other shoppers must have wondered at us carrying armloads of plastic flowers out of the store.
In the parking lot, I stripped out the plastic flowers and put them on top of the overflowing trash bin. I loaded the back of our car with eucalyptus and its spice filled the car with the smell of Christmas.