Earth Botanica, an Orangutan called Rakus, and making sense of scents


Nature is now officially an artist on Spotify. ‘ “4.6 billion years ago, a star was born, but never credited. Today, that changes”, SoundsRight posted via Instagram’. The new music initiative by the ‘Museum for the United Nations’, aims ‘to get credit and royalties for any registered song that features nature sounds’, so as to raise money for global conservation efforts. Already tracks by BTS, London Grammar, Ellie Goulding, and David Bowie/Brian Eno are included.(1) But there’s also another way Nature can delight our senses and heal us-through her aromas. Hence the term Aromatherapy.

The fresh clean scent of a newborn baby, the familiar and comforting smell of your partner’s embrace, the fragrance of a forest after freshly fallen rain, the soft perfume of summer flowers in full bloom, the aroma of a bonfire on a winter’s night, the whiff of a pot of chai boiling on the stove. Imagine living without enjoying these moments?  Like every sense, smell is a key way we connect in with the environment, and it’s the most primal, being the oldest sense in the evolutionary cycle of vertebrates. It’s usually the sense that creates the first impression on any occasion, and when we’re attracted to someone we’re often drawn to how they smell. Many flower aromas are produced from the sexual organs of plants after all. And as with the sense of sound, smell also often has the ability to trigger memories from long long ago.

Smell is powerfully connected to our emotional well-being. Unlike the other senses-processed in the cerebral cortex, scent travels through the olfactory bulb directly into the limbic system, the brain’s emotional centre. This means when we use our sense of smell, conscious processing and the mind, are both bypassed. And it’s this limbic system that’s responsible for releasing the endorphins that help us feel happy and relaxed.

Within Ayurveda, the nose-our organ of sense, is understood to be related to the Earth element. Given Earth is one large Botanica, growing an array of plants that heal in a myriad of ways-including through our olfactory nerves, this makes complete sense. It also means those with a largely Kapha constitution, whose elemental make-up is Earth and Water, usually not only have a heightened sense of smell, but also love anything whatsoever to do with aromas, whether it be cooking, applying perfumes, or lighting candles.  They’re also the first to complain when there’s a bad smell around that no-one else appears to notice. When travelling in India recently, my youngest very Kapha daughter was keen to visit a town that’s home to Petrichor-the earthy scent that’s produced when rain falls on dry soil. This enticing fragrance is extracted from dry clay and distilled to make a perfumed oil (attar), and is one of her most favourite smells!

Kapha’s element of Earth is all about structure, and this explains why aromas can act as such a grounding and stabilising force. After a viral infection robbed Chrissy Kelly of her sense of smell, she describes how ‘she no longer felt like herself’. She explains she felt as if she were ‘ “floating away” untethered from the rest of the world. “I found living without the sense of smell profoundly disorientating”. Smell she says, is something that binds us to nature and to our family, and without it, we cannot fully participate in everyday life’. (2)

The critical role this sense plays was highlighted in the recent pandemic, with a common symptom of COVID being loss of smell. Millions of people worldwide are estimated to have suffered a long-lasting loss of this sense, and a 2023 study estimated ‘11.7 percent of adults of European ancestry infected with Omicron, also had some amount of olfactory dysfunction’.(2)

Researchers comparing the body odour from infants and teens, have found the ‘Essence of Teens’ contain ‘unique compounds that smell of sweat, urine, musk and sandalwood.’ The study by the German University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, speculates babies smell sweet due to the ‘lower level of certain acids, and the absence of unpleasant smelling steroids’, that are present in increased levels in teens-which is why teens stink.(3) This isn’t surprising given from an Ayurvedic perspective Kapha governs our childhood years, and her Earth and Water elements are related to the sweet taste, whereas Pitta who governs our middle years, is made of the Fire element that relates to both the pungent and salty tastes. Pitta is also in charge of all the various acids our bodies produce, including the gastric juices we secrete which are stimulated by our sense of smell when we’re preparing a meal.

And just as the scent from our urine, faeces, mouth and body odour, or any bodily sores or secretions give clues to how our bodies are faring, the overall smell of a person can also indicate a disease state, with diabetes for example, often leading to a distinctly sweet bodily aroma.

If we’re to keep the approximately 10 million olfactory cells in our olfactory mucosa functioning well in every inhalation of smell, we need to ensure our nasal passages and sinus areas, the seat of Kapha, stay clear. Kapha with her watery elemental make-up is all about mucous, and if you’re Kapha dominant you’re more than likely to harm the functioning of your nasal passage when you consume too much dairy (cheese, yoghurt, ice cream), This is because dairy builds up mucous, and it’s this that can lead to sinus congestion, hay fever, migraines, headaches, sleep apnoea and nasal polyps.

Keeping our nasal passages clear also allows for uninterrupted flow of oxygen, helping maximise our life force, as the nose is the doorway for prana. And if we practice Pranayama, a series of breathing exercises, we can enhance our sense of smell even further, as the practice vibrates the olfactory nerves as we do the exercises. 

Subliminally, scent sets the scene, laying the foundational backdrop from which life unfolds. Often when a house is open for inspection, aromas of baking biscuits are crafted to waft throughout, so the house feels more like a home. Without ingesting any morsel of biscuit, we still feel comforted. The gardens around the Taj Mahal are filled with acres of aromatic flowers such as roses, so that during Summer, the scent of love becomes ubiquitous.

A more direct way to create a space filled with scent, is with essential oils, the concentrated plant essences produced from the flowers, fruits, leaves, wood, seeds, roots and bark of plants. These contain another life force-the life force of plants. When we smell their aromas, their volatile oils sink into our sinus cavities, and give an immediate emotional response. And the varying elemental make-up of each plant variety, means different scents have the ability to help soothe particular Doshas, allowing them to become deeply therapeutic. Vata being made of Air and Space, is soothed by sweet, heavy, earthy scents such as clary sage, orange and citrus, geranium and basil. Pitta being made of Fire and Water, is calmed by cooling, flowery and sweet aromas such as ylang ylang, vetiver, honeysuckle or any floral. And Kapha, made of Water and Earth, is energised by sharp, stimulating, warming scents such as rosemary, camphor, cedar or pine, and frankincense. And there are some scents, such as lavender, rose, jasmine, patchouli, and peppermint, that balance all three Doshas. Sandalwood is another, and is often found burning in retreats and temples, due to its ability to both enhance concentration, and act as a nervine sedative. And a wonderful way to introduce these aromas, is by using oil diffusers, incense sticks, and candles. 

We can also apply perfumed oils (attars) to specific points in the body for increased medicinal impact. This way, the scent of the oil can penetrate more deeply, by radiating its energy out to the various organs and systems of the body. Key points for application include the belly button, from which more than 72000 nadi or energy points arise, the crown chakra, the third eye, the temples, the carotid arteries under the neck, the radial artery on the underside of the wrists, and the heart centre at the sternum. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try having a bath infused with lavender oil, and then applying the natural, sedative nutmeg oil, to your belly button. Both will help. During Winter, or when a cold arrives, inhaling the steam of a few drops of eucalyptus oil in boiling water, can help clear the sinuses before the invading pathogen moves deeper into the chest cavity. Dr Vasant Lad, the Ayurvedic doctor responsible for taking this wonderful ancient science to America and the West more than thirty years ago, talks of the smell of a cut onion placed near the nose of an epileptic boy in the town where he grew up, curtailing the fit once the pungency of the onion’s smell took effect.

When buying essential oils, candles, incense and perfumes, always read labels as assiduously as you would for food products, as so many sold these days are laden with chemicals and are far from being made with Earth’s Botanica. Inhaling poisonous gases can lead to headaches and dizziness, and so can chemically made forms of these goods. Applying too much chemically produced perfume can also lead to migraines or vertigo, in the same way.

Reports emerged this week of a Sumatran Orangutan named Rakus, being observed by scientists healing himself using a known medicinal plant, in his Indonesian rainforest home. Rakus, who is now somewhat of a media sensation ‘chewed up yellow root ( Fibraurea tinctoria), and applied it to an open facial wound, closing the sore within days’. The plant is a native climbing vine used by local people to ‘treat conditions such as diabetes, dysentery and malaria.’ Research on yellow root’s chemistry has shown the plant has ‘antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antioxidant, pain killing, and anti-carcinogenic properties. “ We often lose sight of the fact that modern medicine is derived from a very ancient system of knowledge that began millions of years ago in a variety of habitats about which our knowledge is only beginning to expand” Mary Ann Raghanti, a biological anthropologist at Kent State University told National Geographic’. Dr Caroline Schuppli, senior author of the paper published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’ says ‘ “The treatment of human wounds was most likely first mentioned in a medical manuscript that dates back to 2200 B.C.E.’ (4) I wonder to which ancient manuscript she is referring!

With just over two months to go until the 2024 Olympic Summer Games in Paris, the French Postal Service ‘has just released scratch-and-sniff postage stamps that smell like French baguettes’. The stamp, and associated smell, ‘honour the iconic French food’ that La Poste has labelled ‘bread of our daily life, symbol of our gastronomy, jewel of our culture’. (5) Too wonderful!

And this week the dress code for the Met Costume Institute Gala was ‘Garden of Time’, supporting the new Spring exhibition entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’. Gorgeous flower motifs reigned supreme, as they have since time immemorial throughout all mediums of art. Why not reawaken your love for the sense of smell, and begin tapping into nature’s garden of scents. Wake up and curate days that actively nourish you. Spend time in nature attuned to her fragrances, cook food from scratch-relishing the aromas, use incense sticks, candles and oil burners-basking in their scent, apply oil to your bath and body-enjoying the perfumes. Smells are enticing and exciting-you only have to take a dog for a walk to learn this eternal truth. They know the art of smelling is important and takes a great deal of attention, which is why they inject so much passion into the endeavour!

Are you as clever as Rakus at self-healing? Begin to savour smell, and you just might be.