The Truth about Those Stinky Lilies

Apr 09, 2020

When handed a bouquet of flowers, your first instinct might be to bend down and take a deep breath. Flowers smell good, right? Or maybe you’re remembering the Easter lily on Grandma’s table that you thought stunk to high heaven. And you might be surprised to learn just how many flowers have no smell at all. Flowers vary wildly in many aspects, and smell is no exception.  

So, why is that? Most flowers out in nature have an aroma. This isn’t meant for us. Just as they use bright colors, flowers use smells to attract pollinators. These can be very specific, meant to appeal to only one insect or bird. Knowing this, it’s unsurprising that you might take a whiff of a flower and find it absolutely revolting. Really, it’s kind of amazing that we do find so many floral aromas appealing.  

That's out in the wild, though. The majority of flowers that you buy from a florist or in the grocery store don't have a smell. Some years ago, I worked in a floral shop where we often joked about how many calls we received about lilies. So many customers would place an order and say something along the lines of this: “Absolutely no lilies. They smell horrible.” While some lilies do have a very strong smell that people either love or hate, the lilies these customers would have received would have almost always been a non-smelly variety. 

When it comes to cultivating flowers for our enjoyment, something funny has happened over the hundreds of years we’ve been manipulating blooms: our eyes beat out our noses. Most flowers have been bred almost exclusively for looks. It takes decades to create a new floral variety, and those creating them simply have to focus on what’s most important for the market. That means fancy looks. Some of the most beautiful and expensive varieties of roses, for example, are completely odorless. Occasionally smell is taken into consideration. Lilies have a very polarizing smell that people either love or hate. So while they’re also bred for beauty, that strong aroma has been purposely left behind in many varieties. 

This is a bit sad for me. I can’t think of anything more divine that a strongly scented rose. I know many love the smell of stock or other flowers that have managed to retain their scent. Hyacinth, for example, is one of the most aromatic blooms still being sold. (Read more about the hyacinth’s more dangerous side here.) 

Luckily, there are still some flowers being bred for scent, and hopefully that becomes more and more popular as time goes by. For now, don’t be surprised when you give a bouquet a sniff and your nose doesn’t pick up a thing. 

Learn more about which poisonous flowers to look out for here.

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