When native Michigander and notable artist Alfred Hutty made his way to Charleston via Woodstock, N.Y., in the spring of 1919, he was so taken with the character, fragrances and groove of the city that he (according to legend, anyway) wired his wife the following morning instructing her to “Come quickly. Have found heaven.”
Eventually taking up residence at 46 Tradd St., the couple was literally around the corner or down the street from DuBose Heyward, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, forming a central nidus of artists and artistry in the greater panoply of the so-called Charleston Renaissance.
After retiring from CBS news, reporter, essayist and wanderlust author Charles Kuralt described Charleston in his 1995 book “Charles Kuralt’s America” as among 12 must-see U.S destinations to visit depending on the time of year. Kuralt chose March, a good pick, when the city sheds a bit of winter drab and explodes in color. It’s like watching "The Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy, trapped in a world of black and white, suddenly finds the entire spectrum through an open door once the tornado has touched her down in a new land.
“Charleston,” Kuralt wrote by way of introduction, “was founded by lords and ladies as the homes of the only American nobility.”
In the world of multi-sensory stimulation, March, April and May in Charleston are tough to beat. May can be hot, but it can also be extremely pleasant if the heat doesn’t set in too badly. That’s when it’s warm enough to discourage the gnats some, but a little early for mosquitoes, when the pollen is mostly washed away and the magnolias, summer annuals and roses bloom. “Then, in May,” Emily Whaley says in conversation with William Baldwin in their 1997 book “Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden," there’s “the blue hydrangeas, the yellow parkinsonia, the oleanders, the blue vitex and daylilies.”
So much of the stimulation walking around this time of year comes from different floral scents, starting with tea olive, which dominates everything in October, retreats during the winter and comes on with a final flourish during the early spring. I think of tea olive as the quintessential Charleston fragrance (we’ll conveniently ignore that it was introduced from Asia years ago), with an incredibly sweet aroma that some describe as having overtones of peach and apricot. In the book, Mrs. Whaley describes it as “a tiny white flower whose petal has the same thick velvety texture of the jasmine and banana shrub blooms. Or the magnolia. And the aroma is unbelievable.”
My maternal grandmother’s favorite fragrance was pittosporum and, if for no other reason than she was one of my best friends and I loved her so, it’s probably mine as well. Of all the ambient local floral fragrances (although it too is an Asian import), this particular one — in my humble opinion anyway — most lends itself to what would be the creation of a splendid perfume. A quick Google search shows a variety perfumes with touches of pittosporum. Two classics that have been around for decades, Quelques Fleurs and Caleche, both sort of remind me of the flower, with their orangish overtones while not being overly-sweet. Pittosporum is also a small white flower that has the additional interesting characteristic of maturing through a range of attractive yellows before reentering the life cycle.
On a different matter, I’ve heard it said that the best way to deal with disagreeable neighbors is just to go ahead and have a big fight and get it it out of the way. That way you’ll never feel obliged to speak and — even better — vice versa. Someone else told me the perfect gift under such circumstances is to plant wisteria right next to the shared property line; it will eventually take over everything and chase people off.
Joking aside, the wisteria vine, if properly managed (or not, depending on one’s preferences) on a trellis or fence of some sort or even espaliered, adds remarkable beauty and a delicious bouquet this time of year. Some describe it as a combination of honeysuckle and lilac. Others describe it as trouble. The key is to plant wisteria in such a manner that it can be controlled before it changes its name to kudzu vine.
Citrus plants do very well right here along the lower Carolina coast. We’ve had several in a couple of gardens over the past 25 years. No problems — they even made it through that frigid week in early January of last year —and with lots of fruit along the way. The citrus essence is so powerful and definitive as to be a reference point for other fragrances. Other things smell like citrus. Citrus is simply citrus. It is what it is. Which is what? No clue, although I can tell you it’s not what it isn’t and that fans of springtime aromas need to have some type of citrus in their gardens.
Don’t forget the banana shrub (not to be mistaken with plants that actually grow bananas) whose flowers, unbelievably, smell a lot more like bananas than bananas themselves. Mrs. Whaley says the “shrub has this small flower the size and shape of a pecan and the color of ivory. You hold the bloom in your hand and warm it. Smell and you get a double dose of banana.”
It turns out the product responsible for this particular scent is isoamyl alcohol, something which can be synthesized easily enough in the chemistry lab, if I’m not mistaken.
Alfred Hutty was right. This is a heavenly time of year to be in Charleston. We’ve only talked about a smattering of things in bloom. And depending on whom you ask, the best is yet to come.