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Striving for Diversity: Fragrant Champaca

Articles: Striving for Diversity: Fragrant Champaca

Magnolia xalba on a San Francisco street. Author’s photographs

Compared to other mammals, humans are relatively inept at detecting and distinguishing scents. Our poor sense of smell is reflected in our languages, which are full of redundant words for color, but relatively devoid of words for scent. We usually default to the phrase “it smells like . . .” when describing scents. This phrase came to mind when, in the summer of 2004, Larry Schokman, the longtime curator of the National Tropical Botanical Garden Kampong site in South Florida, picked a large, waxy, beige flower from a strange tree in his garden and held it to my nose. Its enchanting fragrance was some combination of freesia, plumeria, orange blossoms, and Southern magnolia.

I saw the same flowers a few years later on a tree at the Iraivan Hindu Temple on the eastern side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The tree was in full bloom, and its sweet scent could be enjoyed, even with my weak human sniffer, from many yards away. I was surprised to find a similar tropical tree last year growing as a street tree in a San Francisco neighborhood. Larry Sch...


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