It’s In The Air

Wed., Nov. 10, 2021

By Lorinda Laughlin, Gardener

Despite the fact that the days will get shorter, wetter, and colder, most Americans say that autumn is their favorite season.  The crisp air and colorful trees easily evoke memories of Friday night under the lights and reuniting with school friends, anticipation of upcoming holidays, and comforting thoughts of the cozy lifestyle that winter will bring.  But beyond anything I feel or see, the most powerful and immediate trigger of these thoughts for me is the scent in the air. More than catching a whiff of the neighbor’s smoldering leaf pile, or breathing in the steamy goodness of a pumpkin spice latte, that classic yet indescribable scent of autumn is actually a chemical cocktail of many elements stirred up and served by Mother Nature herself.

In the autumn when the days begin to shorten and temperatures fall, trees stop their food-making process (photosynthesis) and, as they begin to shed their leaves, sugars and stored organic compounds break down and are “exhaled” through tiny openings in the leaves called stomata. Many of these compounds are found in the oils that coat the leaves when they are alive, and, depending on the type of tree, the gases emitted may smell like citrus, pine, caramel, anise, or even chlorine.

As the leaves collect on the ground along with other dying vegetation, bark, needles, cones, and twigs, decomposition begins as nature’s recyclers, bacteria, fungi, worms and other invertebrates, feed and thrive off of this last offering of energy while at the same time saving us from being buried in a mountain of forest litter.  The combination of organic chemicals released into the air by the decomposition process creates a background aroma often described as a sweet, musky and earthy.

Autumn’s drop in temperature also plays a role in our ability to detect the specific aroma of the season. While the hot humid air of summer holds a wide array of aromatic molecules and allows them faster travel through the atmosphere, in the cooler and dryer air of fall, scent molecules contract closely together, leaving less space for them to travel while making specific scents more easily detectable.

As the season progresses and temperatures approach freezing before a snow, it becomes harder to detect any scent in the air. So now is the time to go outside, close your eyes, and breathe in nature’s autumn gift!

Lorinda Laughlin

Lorinda Laughlin



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