Not-So-Sweet Smells of Fall

Fall is a wonderful time to be the Arboretum grounds keeper – watering duties slow down, weeds are relenting, and I can wear my favorite sweaters to work. Brisk mornings and the coppery hue of the landscape make for a pleasant work week.

But wait … what’s that smell?

Working in many different areas of the Arboretum has led me to discover some autumnal aromas that are downright unpleasant. It isn’t the cinnamony smell of pumpkin spice latte on the wind, but a stench of skunk and old cheese! Early fall moisture and warm days bring out the worst of smells in some of our flowers and shrubs, causing me to cringe when working near the fetid few.

If you have visited us recently, perhaps you too are wondering about the foul air. Wonder no more! I introduce to you the top three smelly plants at the Arboretum:

1. Cypress (Cupressus arizonica)

While cypress trees traditionally have a pleasing aroma, this variety emits an odor redolent of skunk. The icy blue foliage may be off putting at first sniff, but if you rub the needles between your fingers the scent becomes influenced by citrus and spice, making it somewhat less offensive and almost forgivable. Almost.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

Many evergreens have strong scents, and they get their classic “Christmas” smell from gummy resins, which contain high concentrations of terpene alcohols and acids. Unfortunately, this tree smells less like Christmas and more like roadkill.


Penstemon digitalis seed pods near Dyck Arboretum Visitor's Center

Penstemon digitalis seed pods

2. Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)

Penstemon is a showy spring bloomer that produces reddish, tear-drop shaped seed heads. But when you decide to cut those seed heads down for clean up or collection, I suggest pinching your nose! The bloom doesn’t have a strong scent, but the smell of the seeds and pods has been likened to animal vomit, or very acidic urine. The seeds themselves, though tiny, seem to make the biggest stink – after handling seed, it takes many rounds of hand washing to remove the tangy, kitty-litter smell from your fingers.


3. Rough-leaved dogwood (Cornus drummondii)

Dogwoods grow in dense thickets and are a popular choice for creating natural borders. Because of their thick cover, they are attractive to wildlife and nesting birds. But they are not attractive to the human nose. Dogwood leaves smell ever so slightly of curdled milk. In calm, humid weather, walking near our dogwood plantings can feel as if you have a dirty gym bag on your face. Luckily, as cooler weather sets in, the foul air around these plants seems to dissipate.

So, why the big stink? For flowering species, exuding sweet smells is a signal to bees and butterflies that nectar is ready. No two floral scents are alike in molecular makeup, allowing for specific pollinator attraction. Most plants that give off an unpleasant balm are attracting a less charismatic type of pollinator – flies and beetles. If not for pollination purposes, a malodorous plant may be using its sour perfume as protection from herbivores such as rabbits and deer.

Whatever the reason, I won’t hold the smell against them…but I may choose to avoid pruning them for as long as I can get away with it!


Five Reasons to Love Kansas in Autumn

Last weekend, my family was invited to a get together out in a friend’s pasture.  It was away from any civilization, quiet and cool.  As we sat around the bonfire and visited, I was reminded why this is my favorite time of the year. Here are my reasons for loving Kansas in autumn, but I am sure there are more that you can add:

1. Cooler Weather

Yes, the weather is getting colder.  I love to go to work wearing a sweatshirt and then enjoy a warm late afternoon walk in my shorts and t-shirt. The sunlight is warm and bright, but there’s always a breeze to balance out the heat. It is usually not too hot or too cold, which is perfect in my opinion.

On the gardening front, fall’s cooler weather signals a reprieve from watering and the slowing of maintenance regimens.  This time of year allows me to step back and enjoy the fruits of our labor throughout the year.  I can spend quality time outside taking in the beauty and bounty of the landscape.  It is always good to reflect and appreciate all your energy and effort given during the year.  Otherwise, would it really be worth it?

Maximilian Sunflower


2. The Prairie’s Last Hurrah

Native grasses are at their best right now.  They are in full plumage.  They are changing color from green to bold reds, yellows, and oranges.  They have reached their full height and are spectacular.  If you combine these grasses with just a few fall blooming wildflowers like asters, goldenrods, sunflowers, blazing stars and blue sage, you have the makings for an incredible natural habitat.  I love the way our prairie garden goes a little wild this time of year, still teaming with all sorts of pollinators.



3. Changing Trees

Nothing signals the switching seasons like the trees.  Sure, it is not like New England, but we can have some amazing fall color on our trees.  Have you noticed that one tree in your neighborhood that explodes into color each year?  Since those trees are so rare in this part of the world, we should appreciate them even more.

Table Rock Maple


4. Sunrises and Sunsets

The evening sky has been incredible lately.  Vibrant reds, blues, and purples highlight the sky.  WOW!  Sunrises have been equally spectacular.  So, step outside in the evening or take a morning walk and revel in the beautiful sky.



5. The Smells of Autumn

A warm bonfire while you’re roasting a marshmallow to make a s’more. That first autumn rain after warm, dry weather called petrichor .  The smell of a cool crisp morning.  Pumpkin Pie cooking in the oven.  Anything pumpkin, for that matter.  A warm pot of soup, a freshly mown yard, the rich earth as you turn your garden.  The smell of old leaves on the ground, a freshly brewed cup of coffee, homemade bread cooling on the kitchen counter.  You get the point.


Bonfire at Luminary Walk


Autumn is a great season of the year.  Take some time to appreciate the beauty of fall.  Enjoy moments with family and friends.  Take in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel, and the tastes of autumn, because winter is coming all too fast.