Love at First Scent 

Smelling Your Way to Intimacy

Love at first sight may actually be a case of love at first scent. It's the odor emitting from a person that we first react to, according to researchers, because that smell transmits a wealth of information on a cellular level. This complex communication takes place so subtly that we remain largely unaware of it. When we say that there is "chemistry" between two people, we are actually describing an invisible connection felt by them on an emotional level—a phenomenon also called animal magnetism.

These scent signals sent by one animal to another animal of the opposite sex are called pheromones. Like hormones, pheromones are chemical messengers that we are only just beginning to understand. The word pheromone is a combination of two Greek words pherein (to transfer) and hormon (to excite).

Commercial perfumers have long recognized the importance of pheromones. Some of the most common arousal chemicals used in their products are musk from the musk deer, civet from the civet cat and castoreum from the beaver. These chemicals, referred to as "animal notes" in a perfume or cologne, are actually derived from the sexual hormones secreted by these animals. Strangely enough, the odor, androstenol, found in human sweat is very similar in character to the animal notes used in perfumes. So why not just bottle human sweat?

It seems logical that the easiest way to jump under the sheets with the partner of your choice would be to stop bathing for a week or work out at the gym prior to your date. Bloodhounds can easily seek us out, but our potential paramour is often confused as to the message we emit, and no wonder. Instead of allowing our normal bouquet to arouse our lover as the animals and insects do, we work hard to wash off and mask our own bodily aroma by adding the oils of plants and other animals! Although we spend a lot of effort trying to disguise our natural odors, they probably influence our sexual attraction and bonding more than all the perfumes, deodorants and after-shaves we apply.

Whether you believe in love potions or not, essential oils derived from plants have the power to leave an indelible impression on a lover's mind. The initial heady stages of romantic love are often associated with a unique scent and that scent becomes imprinted on the brain. Years later, long after the relationship has faded, the slightest whiff of that initial scent can trigger the memory and evoke the emotions of that wondrous time. My first boyfriend used to wear the cologne Brut. Whenever I desire to conjure those old memories, all I need to do is open a tester bottle of Brut at the store.

Once we've paired up with our chosen sweetheart, we continue our aura of illusion by creating a sensual atmosphere with items like scented massage oils, fresh flowers, soft music and candlelight. We might even use aphrodisiac oils like cinnamon, ginger, clove, peppermint, nutmeg and vanilla. These luscious aromas, found in a variety of sweets, also come in handy apres l'amour. Other stimulating oils are: basil, fennel, thyme, sage, pine, juniper, sandalwood, jasmine and rose. Most health food stores carry essential oils.

The use of aromas to cause a physiological effect is called aromatherapy today, but it has been around as a practice for many years. Its history lies hidden in the folds of time with people from all continents partaking. Aromatic oils are believed to be spiritual in nature in India, and the handling of herbs and oils is a sacred task. Traditional Indian weddings make use of flower garlands hung over the honeymoon bed and fragrant blossoms of frangipani, rose and jasmine spread on the bed sheets for the newlyweds. The Kama Sutra is filled with instructions for using various oils and perfumes to fan the flames of love.

Ancient Egyptians, like Cleopatra, were noted for their use of scents and oils. The story of Cleo's first meeting with Mark Antony is legendary. It is said she soaked the sails of her barge in perfume, scented her gowns, and surrounded herself with a cloud of aromatic incense as she sat on her throne floating up the Nile to greet and seduce Mark.

The Greeks learned about aromatic oils from the Egyptians, but they took it a step further and ascribed a divine origin to all aromatic plants. The Romans exceeded everyone in their outrageous and lavish use of aromatic substances. Along with public bathing, they adopted the sumptuous use of aromatics as a social form of amusement and entertainment. Pliny the Elder recorded a fatal case of flower gluttony in Imperial Rome under Nero's reign when banquet guests were smothered to death under heaps and heaps of rose petals dropped from above ... obviously too much of a good thing.

Often when we think of perfume, France comes to mind. Perfume sellers were recorded in Paris as early as 1190. Napoleon was notorious in his use of and desire for strong aromas. It is said that he used eau de Cologne heavily when going into battle to give his troops confidence in his leadership. And who can ever forget his famous letter to his beloved Josephine, asking her not to bathe until he arrived home? Was he just a wacko, or did he actually have his nose in the right place?

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: sbell@uidaho.edu.

Questions? Comments? E-mail editor@boiseweekly.com.

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