by Richelle DeBlasio
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and I remember becoming restless at the end of each school year. As the days became warmer and longer, I no longer felt confined to remaining indoors. After coming home from school, instead of doing my homework, I would run to the backyard to see if the flowers my father planted had grown since the previous day. He planted many varieties, including sunflowers, morning glories, and lilies.
However, my favorite flower was always lavender. It was always one of the first plants to grow each spring and one of the last to remain at the end of summer. I loved those flowers so much that I would sit outside and work on my homework while lying beside them in the grass. I found their purple color to be absolutely beautiful, filled with deep shades of violet and bright highlights of indigo that softly merged with the green stem in a brilliant white. I attempted to count the number of individual petals on each stem, much to my failure. I also tried to press the flowers between layers of wax paper, but the bulkiness of the plant prevented them from flattening into the spears they resembled alive.
Most of all, the scent of the lavender came to define the happiest moments of my childhood. My parents would always take me to smell the lavender plants, handing me a small portion of the petals as they clipped a few stems that would dry near the kitchen window. While the stems would shrivel and harden, the petals always retained their stunning blue-purple pigmentation. This phenomenon still amazes me to this day; sometimes I struggle to determine if a lavender stem is alive or not. Several weeks later, the dried lavender would be added to one of the many vases throughout our home, each holding lavender from years past.
Now that I no longer live at my parents’ home, I still occasionally smell lavender from the campus gardens or perhaps a perfume. No matter the origin, the smell is always unexpected yet prompts me to reminisce about my childhood without fail. It makes me wonder how can something as simple as a scent illicit such powerful personal effects? Researchers at the University of Utah and University of California, Davis believe that smells are detected near a region of the brain involved with long-term memory formation. If true, this theory may explain why some smells bring back memories many years after they were formed. While sight and sound can also produce long-term memories, smells may be more efficient than the other senses in memory formation among young people. Additionally, participants in a study in Sweden perceived their scent-associated memories to be more calming and pleasing than other memories.
Perhaps my love for the smell of lavender is not quite as mysterious as I had thought; it’s biological! Lavender is also frequently used in aromatherapy, the use of plant chemical extracts for medicinal purposes. Spanish researchers have found that molecules released by lavender may inhibit certain neural receptors believed to cause diseases involving loss of motor control, such as Parkinson’s disease. Other researchers suggest that lavender aromatherapies may lower blood pressure and subsequently increase sleep quality. Because sleep is known to enhance thought processing and encoding, lavender may actually be advantageous in memory formation compared to other scents. These studies may help explain why I associate feelings of joy when I smell lavender, even years after I have moved out of my parents’ home.
Perhaps I should invest in a dedicated collection of lavender essential oils; as researchers suggest, smelling these flowers may produce health benefits. Regardless of their ability to improve my health, though, I would gladly smell the wonderfully gentle scent of lavender anyway.
Richelle is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Biological Sciences.
Photo credits: (top) Werner100359 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons; (middle) David Santaolalla from León, spain [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons