02 November 2006

The Scent of Sycamores

I have a lot of smell memories. One of the most nostalgic for me is the scent of sycamores, a scent I associate both with Japan, where I spent most of my youth, and Virginia, where my parents grew up and I spent several years of my youth. My mother was also sweet on sycamores, as I recall.

When I catch the scent of sycamores, I invariably stop and sniff—like a dog at a curbside tree or fire hydrant—matching the odor against my smell memories from Japan and Virginia. I discovered the same scent along a few sidewalks in Seoul during a visit there in 1995, and wondered whether the Japanese had first planted those hardy trees along those streets. I also caught the scent in the parking lot of the Cincinnati City Museum, during a visit to see my sister when she lived there later in the 1990s. My most recent favorite spot to stop and sniff the sycamores was in Ashikaga, Japan, during my time there last year, where a central city block was lined on both sides with the same trees. I wasn't there during the heart of winter, but the trees caught my nose during the late summer and early fall (August-September), and then later when I came back in the spring (March-June).

It wasn't until much later in life that I discovered that the sycamores of my smell memories were the plane trees of my literary memories, whose Latin genus name, Platanus, was borrowed into both Japanese and Korean. The native Japanese name for the tree is suzu-kake-no-ki 'bell-hanger tree'. The Oriental plane, P. orientalis, is quite hardy, but the American sycamore (P. occidentalis)—also called buttonwood—is more susceptible to a fungus, so the hybrid London plane (Platanus × hispanica or Platanus × acerfolia) is the more likely species to adorn streets in Europe and North America.

The term sycamore has been applied to quite a range of trees, including the biblical fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) and sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) as well as the plane trees.

UPDATE: The Japanese rendering of Platanus is プラタナス  puratanasu. The Korean name I elicited in Seoul in 1995 sounds very close to that, but I've never seen it spelled. The native Korean name for the genus seems to be 식물종 sik-mul-jong (pronounced something like shingmuljong).

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