The Why and the Wherefore: Lemon-scented plants

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Lemon Verbena. I've been asking my friend Peter why certain things smell like lemon, when they have nothing to do with lemons. (And why does lemon balm smell like lemon but look and behave like mint? – we’ll save that for another day). I can see that Peter, a logical, scientific sort of person, is trying his best. “Plants produce scent for attraction as well as defence,” he offers. “While citrus is attractive to pollinating insects, it is repellent to aphids.”

But why do they smell like lemon… “All lemon-smelling plants share the essential oil limonene.” But they're not all lemons, I say. “Why do you find that surprising?” Peter asks, incredulously. “Why is it surprising to call something with lemon in it, lemon? If you use the word red for describing the property of a plant, that's not surprising. We are simply describing the red property that disparate plants share from a human point of view. The colour red,” he says, very slowly and emphatically, 'Is... just... a... gene. As is a particular scent.”

Scented-leafed pelargonium ‘Lemon Fancy’. I don't think that this line of enquiry is really holding Peter's attention. We speak of related things. Scents which are repellent to some insects may be  attractive to humans, just by chance. Like lemon. But scent and taste do not always correspond. The essential oil geraniol is good in soaps for instance, “But when you eat it, it's absolutely vile!” Lemon sorbet is very good as an amuse bouche but lemon verbena sorbet is even better.

A couple of weeks later and I approach Peter with the killer question. “What makes a lemon a lemon?” “The same thing that makes a tomato a tomato.” End of conversation.

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