It smells of good memories | NCPR News

The older I get, the more I look for ways to pretend my memory isn’t a slide down a steep hill. Notes help, except when I lose them. A string tied around my finger helped me remember where the keys are, except when I forget to tie the other end to my keychain. If only keys smelled seductive.

French novelist Marcel Proust, who coined the phrase “Proust’s moment” when tea and cake took him back to his childhood, wrote: “…the smell and taste of things remain in balance for a long time, like the souls, ready to call us back…” Pretty much that, except in French. The fact that our longest-lasting memories are tied to aromas (the majority of what we think of as taste is actually mediated by olfaction) is due to the way we handle sensory input.

Here’s the thumbnail sketch: Visual, auditory, taste, and tactile inputs pass through the thalamus, a “sorting hat” that routes data for processing elsewhere in the brain. But smells go directly from our olfactory bulb to our hippocampus, which is responsible for memory formation. The hippocampus has been shown to be more strongly connected to smell than to any other sense.

If you’ve ever wondered how Santa keeps track of so many kids and presents, it’s thanks to a smelly holiday. Sure, elves can handle Santa’s payroll taxes and compile lists of nice kids, but I bet Santa would have long since fumbled his holiday homework if it wasn’t for all the scents reminiscent of Christmas. spirit of the season.

He has fragrant evergreens, and probably a whiff of reindeer dung too, to jog his memory. And maybe the smell of cow manure on the North Country and the hint of crude oil on Bakersfield, Calif., help Santa polish his local memories.

If each family experiences the end of year celebrations in its own way, the common thread is that they have a unique olfactory signature. Whether it’s eggnog, a roast turkey, or Uncle Ernie’s foul-smelling cigar, memories of this era are often tied to smell.

Of all the memorable aromas of the season, I think nothing evokes its essence like the scent of a freshly cut Christmas tree. Although the majority of Americans who observe Christmas have switched to artificial trees, the National Christmas Tree Association claims that 25 to 30 million real trees are sold in the United States each year. The top five Christmas tree states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Maine, New York and Washington are also major producers.

Each species of conifer has its own blend of terpenols and fragrant esters that account for its “piney woods” incense. Some people want the scent of the particular tree they had as children. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri. No chemistry lab can make a plastic tree smell as good as fresh pine, fir or spruce.

The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, as evergreens, wreaths, and branches were used by many pre-Christian peoples, including the ancient Egyptians, to symbolize eternal life. In 16th century Germany, Martin Luther helped spark the custom of household Christmas trees when he brought an evergreen tree into his home and decorated it with candles. For centuries, Christmas trees only came in on December 24e and were kept until after Epiphany on January 6e. (I guess the habit of storing a highly combustible tree in one’s living space and decorating it with flames must have died out with the advent of fire codes.)

In terms of crowd pleasers, fir trees – Douglas, Noble, Fraser and Balsam – are by far the most popular. The tall and concolor firs are lesser-known members of this group. Fir trees are particularly aromatic and when kept in water have excellent needle retention.

Pines also retain their needles well. While our native white pine is more fragrant than Scots pine (not scotch, it’s for Santa), the latter sells much better than the former, perhaps because the hardy Scots can handle a lot of decorations without so that its branches do not fall. I have a soft spot for white pine, which may stem from its outsized cultural and historical significance as a tree of peace for the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and as a symbol of the American Revolution.

Not only do spruces have sturdy branches, but they tend to have a strongly pyramidal shape. Spruces may not be as fragrant as firs or pines, but they are perfect for those who like trees with short needles. Spruces are a snap to decorate and end of season cleanup is easier.

The annual pilgrimage to choose a real tree together is for many families, like mine, a cherished holiday tradition; a time to bond. It was our custom to bring a thermos of hot chocolate, and the children’s ritual was to lose at least a mitt each. I remember our old family squabbles – I mean discussions – about the best tree. Good smells and especially good memories.

Not only are Christmas trees a renewable resource, they help keep approximately 350,000 acres of green space perpetually open in the United States. They also boost local economies. The Christmas Tree Farmers’ Association of New York can help you find the nearest tree farm.

If you have room in the yard, consider buying a potted Christmas tree. It would be indoors for the holidays and planted outdoors later. It takes a little more planning, but it can be a fun family activity. Even if you don’t have time to cut down your own tree at a Christmas tree farm, do yourself a favor and buy a real tree from a local vendor who can give you advice on identifying and decorating it. maintenance of trees.

For best scent and needle retention, cut a one to two inch “biscuit” from the base before placing your tree in the stand, and refill the reservoir every other day. LED tree lights also help retain needles. LEDs don’t dry out the needles like older incandescent lights do and are also easier on your electric bill.

Whatever your traditions during the winter holidays, may your evergreens and your loved ones be well hydrated this season, and may your olfactory bulbs and Christmas bulbs help to keep good memories.

Paul Hetzler is an ISA Certified Arborist and former Cornell Cooperative Extension educator. He’s probably looking for his car keys right now.

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