Breathe in. There’s an elusive scent in the air and it takes a moment or two to track it down. Come, let us lead you by the nose.

Over the last two winters we’ve noticed something interesting in a well trodden corner of Edinburgh. Hurrying through Princes Street Gardens, perhaps rushing eastwards to catch a train at Waverley Station, or heading west for the National Galleries, you will see people sometimes stop and sniff the air.  On a dour, grey, Auld Reekie kind of day, a sudden sweet fragrance teases you like a whisper of spring, but where is it coming from?

Entrance to Princes Street Gardens, passing a row of modest evergreen shrubs

Where’s it coming from?

Look closely. There’s no obvious source among the bare trees and evergreen shrubs on the bank beneath Market Street.  By late February spring bulbs are beginning to appear but surely they don’t pack such a powerful smell.

It’s almost like a waft of jasmine – the sort of heady essence that hits you when you walk through warm and steamy glasshouses in a botanical garden – but this is out of doors, it’s Scottish midwinter and temperatures are far from tropical.

Last year, when we weren’t rushing for a train, we stopped and looked and eventually traced the scent to a modest looking evergreen with a white flower so small and demure it seemed hard to believe it could really put out such a heavenly scent.  But there was no doubt.

Plants in Princes Street Gardens don’t carry labels so we tweeted City of Edinburgh Council to ask what it was called.  It took a while…they had to ask the parks department…but a day or two later back came the answer.

Edinburgh City Council (@Edinburgh_CC) tells @walkingheads the plant is Sarcococca Confusa

A year whizzed by. Sarcococca confusa, otherwise known as sweet box, slipped out of mind until this February when the scent chased us through the gardens on a miserable murky Saturday. Then again, the next day, in a quiet corner of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh we saw a group of people nosing the air and this time we were able to direct them to the source, quietly lurking in a border curving towards the Queen Mothers Garden. Being the Botanics there’s a label identifying a different variety of sweet box, Sarcococca hookeriana (the name pays tribute to Joseph Hooker 19th century plant hunter, director of Kew and son of William Hooker who helped develop Glasgow Botanic Gardens).

close up of Sarcococca confusa: shiny green leaves, small white flower

Closer: Sarcococca confusa in Princes Street Gardens

Delicious! But hurry, sweet box flowers from December to March so the season is just about over.

But it gives us an idea for fragrant walks – an unexpected treat when you are exploring cities. There are tempting aromas from cafes and bars but perhaps you don’t expect to find the scents of plants and trees in urban environments and yet even the busiest cities offer green spaces where we can pause for breath.  Maybe some day we can invent a Sniffogram to capture the moment. But until then perhaps you can help us to follow our nose?    

Sarcococca hookeriana in the Botanics: narrower green leaves and a smaller white flower but packing a powerful scent

Complete with label: Sarcococca hookeriana in the Botanics