Photo of a water lily among lily pads

World Sensorium Research

The study for the creation of World Sensorium surveyed the officials of 240 countries (and territories) to identify dominant natural aromas retained through odor memory by a majority of people of each country. The study established that highly associative natural scents work as olfactory imprints and memory triggers for large numbers of people of cultures in every region of the world.

Countries identified dominant associative scents through different processes. For most, the plants identified stood out as a part of their natural heritage and intrinsic to the culture. Olfactory stimuli were referenced by their linguistics, history, anthropology, literature, folk songs, operas, and national anthems. The World Sensorium research in each of these countries revealed that people could quickly identify these plants by their scent alone. The scent of their country of origin made them feel “at home” whether or not they resided in their country or experienced a memory triggered by the scent elsewhere in the world. 

The research process had penetrating and revealing moments that reflect the fact that plants are not about borders. For instance, when the representatives from the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and representatives of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine from the United Nations phoned within minutes of each other, delivering near identical statements that the scent holding the deepest associative power for their people was that of the olive tree (genus olive) because of its ancient occupation of the lands and its symbolism of peace for which their people strived.

The research process also revealed that different countries often evolved unique cultural uses for the same plant and in turn, related to the source of the smell in culturally specific manners. The semantic terms for the scent sources were often correlated to cultural use. In Togo, citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), a highly fragrant grass that grows in clumps, is called “fever grass” and is primarily used to reduce fevers. However, on the island of Réunion, Citronella clumps are regularly divided and planted all around the homes to prevent mosquitoes from entering and so is often called “mosquito plant.”

In Australia, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the most culturally important scent to all Australians was eucalyptus (genus Eucalyptus). The problem then being which of 700 species best articulated Australia’s customs and practices. After in-depth research and consideration, Eucalyptus radiata was chosen to represent Australia. Eucalyptus radiata grows wild and has a fresh woody and cooling aroma that is known to be revitalizing to inhale. The oil’s properties are anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Commonly used as an expectorant, its long history of use involves direct inhalation of oils, steeping for tea, or as a medicinal wash for wounds.

The World Sensorium formula consists of 24% jasmine (genus Jasminum) based on various species found around the world. Often associated with sensory pleasure and perceived as highly beneficial, the soothing smell of jasmine flowers in the night air was stated by many as their favorite and most memorable scent. Jasmine, officially cited by eleven countries in World Sensorium, represents the power that natural floral odors have to influence both mood and the physical state of the body. The cultural practices now associated with the jasmine flower and its scent, developed their biological meaningfulness from the societies and the people who engaged with it centuries ago.

Eight countries identified the smell of various species of rose as culturally significant: Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, and the Maldives. Rose (genus rosa) has long been associated with Islamic religious traditions. Iran described the monumental production and use of rosewater in their many religious observances, the most important being the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. When the Great Mosque of Mecca, Masjid al-Haram is washed in rosewater, it is said that the scent of rose can be smelled miles away.

The aromatic gum resins (dried tree sap) of frankincense (genus Boswellia) and Myrrh (genus Commiphora) have been used since ancient times in spiritual, religious, and ceremonial rites. Both traditionally used as either incense or anointing oil, their molecular properties link World Sensorium to a long history of plants raised to the very highest cultural status through the merging of spirituality and medicine. Myrrh was chosen by Somalia and the oleogum was distilled from wild harvested myrrh native to Somalia. Juniper was identified by Bhutan, Mongolia, and Tajikistan as an associative olfactory cultural cue because of its long history of use as incense for rituals of purification.

Many of the scents of World Sensorium are from foods and spices that are bountiful in substances that benefit human health. The smell of coffee and the coffee flower were identified by Uganda, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Georgia and Germany identified the scent of grapes as highly associative. Other fruit scents identified as culturally associative include coconut by the Congo, banana by Cape Verde, pineapple by Guinea, and mango by Brazil. The scent of spices includes nutmeg by Grenada, paprika by Hungary, allspice by Jamaica, and savory by Bolivia. Réunion, Comoros, and Mexico identified vanilla (a product of the orchid) as the most culturally important scent. Food historians believe vanilla was introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson, where it soon became an important ingredient in food, and later in fragrance. Its popularity for generations, as both a scent and flavor, has made it familiar, comforting, and memory provoking.

Possibly the most anthropologically important statement of scent related to cultural practices and social cohesion came from the island country Palau. Their representative recounted the centuries long use of turmeric (Curcuma longa), mixed with coconut oil, and its use in highly ritualized sequences of celebrations, ceremonies, and healing procedures for first-time mothers.

Many trees were identified for their culturally related associations, uses, and resulting odor memories. Species of pine were identified by the United States, Austria, and Honduras, citing both curative and culinary use.

Togo and Réunion identified indigenous grasses as fundamental to their culture, as well as the United Kingdom, Lesotho, Central African Republic, Mali, and Western Sahara. The United Kingdom felt that all four of its countries were united as people who know the scent of the sea wind rolling through “lands of grasses.” In the Republic of Ireland the smell of turf is an important part of their history and culture. For the majority of people, the smell of burning turf prompts vivid memories of time spent with family and friends where stories were passed to the younger generation.

In sharing the experience of World Sensorium, each person’s biological and geographical background, including the environmental conditions of their homeland, is a recognized factor in the experience. This research has provided new understandings of human olfaction and the interrelated nature of odor detection and memory. As we continue to explore this relationship, we are ever more aware of the role humans must play in the conservation of plants iconic to their individual cultures.