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Scent of a City: Heady Essence of Oranges

February 08, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every year it takes us by surprise. Stepping through a doorway, sliding out of the car, walking along a tree-lined street as the moon begins to rise, we stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and there it is--a scent of honey and orange suddenly everywhere, sweet and floral and strong enough to lie down on. "What is that?" we murmur, raising our faces to the sky, blinking as if it were rain or a breeze on an August day. "What is that?" we ask again, as if we hear the song of the seraphim or a remembered voice softly speaking words of strength into our ears.

The smell grows deeper, dizzying and improbable, as we pause beside our mailboxes, on our front stoops. It surrounds us like the night, and we surrender. Our heads fall back, our shoulders loosen, our hands rise from our sides and we stand beneath the heavens and receive, just for the moment, the breath of the angels.

What is that?

Technically, it is the fragrance of the Victorian box tree, a Pittosporum undulatum native to Australia, which grows with abandon throughout Southern California. The smell is often mistakenly attributed to the mock orange, which has a similar scent but is a finicky shrub that has become increasingly rare in this area. The Victorian box, on the other hand, is a low-maintenance plant with small orange fruit that sticks to whatever touches it, including feet and paws and tires. It is a tree that proliferates through wanderlust, through transience, a botanical metaphor for this city of mobile dreams.

Like the jacaranda in June, the scent of the Victorian box is one of the magical things about life in Los Angeles. Although Evelyn Waugh wrote pejoratively about the city's springtime stink of orange blossoms, even he could not have remained unmoved by the Victorian box. It is too heady, too provocative to be dismissed, even by a sardonic Englishman. Its nocturnal redolence suggests that seeking first kiss, the silken pillow, the foaming bath that is shared and then abandoned. Seeping in through open windows, under doors, the scent saturates the air, the bedclothes, so dense you can taste it. Ambrosia rising, within and without.

For some, it is the first coy promise of spring, although the Victorian box blooms in early February, long before the weeping chill of winter has truly vanished. One minute it is a tree of rather innocuous dark green leaves, the next it is covered in clusters of small, creamy blossoms--a transformation as sudden as first love. Though open throughout the day, the flowers release their strongest fragrance at night, when it moves alone, separate from the sunlit scents of winter-blooming jasmine or the myriad fruit trees.

It is a calculated seduction. Scent is just one temptation among nature's charms, used by some flowering plants and trees in the same way others use color or form--to attract those animals and insects needed for reproduction. A nocturnally active plant calls to night creatures, including moths and bats, drawing them close enough for pollination.

And what is pleasing to a bat is generally pleasing to a human, says Avery Gilbert, who is president of the Sense of Smell Institute in New York. As mammals with a fruit-seeking past, humans are especially attracted to citrus-sweet scents, as the perfume industry knows well. Citrus scents, Gilbert adds, are created by light molecules that travel quickly--they are the top notes of a more complex fragrance, reaching the nose first and creating a clean, light impression, with an implication of tasty things to come.

Bats and biology aside, the scent of the Victorian box is a sensual reminder that for all its failings, Los Angeles remains an urban Eden, home to some of the most gorgeous and startling flora found in any city. From the sedate camellias to the brazen hibiscus to the flaming bougainvillea to the sultry jasmine to the outrageous bird of paradise, the common yard plants of Los Angeles are as vivid and glorious as those sheltered in hothouses elsewhere. We frequently take them for granted, as we do the palms that sweep the sky, as we do that sky so high and bright.

Because it's easy to take things, even beautiful things, for granted. It's easy to point to what's wrong with where we live--the traffic and the noise and the scandals, the skyrocketing house prices and the failing power grids. It's easy to see only the concrete and the billboards and the crowds and the sprawl, easy to let our lives become overwhelmed with Things to Do, to add our lovers and our friends and our children and our parents to that list. It's easy to believe that everyone wants something from us and that there are no gifts left in life.

Until stepping out of the house one evening to empty the garbage, or hurrying from the car to the baby-sitter's house, we stop and breathe, and there it is. That smell. Of hope and love and lust; of inevitable, inexorable spring; of this land's perpetual gift of sudden grace.

What is that?

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