Tuesday, November 29, 2022

That Stinks!

Every year at about this time I get a little bit sad. When I go into Home Depot for plumbing parts and see all the paperwhite bulbs,

or page through the Whiteflower farms catalog and see their selection of paperwhites.

You might be wondering why I don't just get some and force them for their sweet little flowers and delightful scent. The answer is that John thinks they smell like cat pee.

I had forced paperwhite bulbs when I was in high school and wanted to continue when I moved to Florida after college. I bought some (that John and I couldn't really afford), placed them in a bowl with stones and water, and happily waited for blossoms. When they did bloom, John walked into the apartment and asked, "What stinks?" I had always found paperwhites' scent delicate and lovely, so how was it possible that they smelled like cat pee to John? It turns out that it's due to a chemical called indole. It's produced naturally by paperwhites and also gardenias, jasmine, tuberose, and orange flowers. Not everyone likes the smell of indole – especially in large amounts. It's found in other things: fecal matter, decaying animals, body odor, and even in vegetables such as broccoli and kale. (So paperwhites might sound less attractive to me.)

Some varieties of paperwhite (the ones whose flowers are more yellow than white like Grand Soleil D’Or and Wintersun) are supposed to have less indole and therefore a lighter and sweeter smell. I've never tried them; most often the bulbs you see at Home Depot or even in the grocery store are from the subspecies Ziva which is high in indole and therefore stinky to some people.

So I'm content to have a beautiful Thanksgiving cactus blooming, a geranium blossoming on the windowsill, and hyacinth bulbs chilling in the refrigerator to force later this year. But sadly, no stinky cat pee flowers are grown here. 


  1. I did not expect a chemistry lesson when I opened this post, but I now I can say I learned something today! I wonder if the cat pee smell is only perceived by some people and not others, sort of like how cilantro tastes like soap to some people. I'm sorry you can't have paperwhites in your house, but that cactus is sure putting on a beautiful show!

  2. I'm with John, I'm afraid. No paperwhites in the house, please. ;-)
    When Tom was in grad school, one of his first projects had to do with indoloquinones (I think it was some sort of "mycin" project, although the details fail me now . . . as they did then, actually), so I learned about indoles a long time ago. He also (unfortunately) had to work with skatole (also an indole, but more the feces variety). Yay for chemistry . . . in all its forms.

  3. Coming from a family full of chemists, I'm surprised I did not know this...but then my Mom never had paperwhites in the house. Fletch and I did for a number of years, but the scent became too strong for me and the stems would grow so tall and lanky that they were always tipping over. They are pretty though! Love your cactus and also your geranium - gorgeous!

  4. Thank you for the lesson about indole. I don't mind the smell of those other plants, so I "guess" paperwhites would be okay with me. I've never tried them and I don't really have a good spot for them here. :-(

    I once grew an orchid that smelled like wet paper bags when it bloomed. For days we were looking for the "plumbing leak" that would make drywall wet. We finally figured out it was the orchid.

  5. Now I know why Steve hates the smell of paperwhites so much! LOL And thank you for providing some ├╝ber interesting dinner conversation in which I can bring up indole and indoloquinones (what a great word, Kym!)

    But your Christmas Cactus is gorgeous! AND!! That Geranium!

  6. I have no issue with the way that paperwhites smell but my cousin does and I couldn't understand why until I looked into it. Chemistry is fascinating!

  7. I'm with you! I don't like any of the scents you mentioned but I love my Holiday cacti! Yours is beautiful!


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