Natural Odors

Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

Hugh Crandall - NPS Photo

How often have you walked through the woods and smelled the aroma of pine trees or the musty odor of damp soil and humus? Perhaps you have smelled the sweet fragrance of wild rose or white violet or been offended by the pungent odor of a skunk. These and many other natural odors, whether we realize it at first or not, constitute an important element of experiencing Shenandoah National Park. Natural odors also play key roles in the interactions of wildlife with one another and their habitats. Mates are found or rejected by odor, predator and prey interactions are partially determined by odor, and locations for nests, dens, and hives may be located in part by odor.

Our lives are often dominated by odors that people generate – perfume, room fresheners, cooking food, automotive emissions, livestock and poultry odors, chemical disinfectants and sanitizers. We live and work in climate controlled environments where the air we breathe may be filtered. Perhaps we have lost our familiarity with the odors found in a natural setting. Exploring Shenandoah National Park is a place where you can experience those natural odors.

A visitor might encounter the following odors associated with plants at Shenandoah. The scratched twigs of black birch (Betula lenta) and yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis) smell like wintergreen. The roots of sassafrass (Sasafrass albidum) smell like rootbeer and the crushed leaves of sweet cicely (Osmorhiza claytonia) give off the scent of licorice. Along with the pleasing, comes the unpleasant. Scratched or broken twigs of wild cherry (Prunus serotina) smell like bitter almond, an odor produced by the cyanide in the bark. Crushed false hellebore (Veratrum viride) and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) both smell like skunks. Perhaps most offensive of all are the dark purple flowers of wild ginger (Asarum canadense) which smell like rotting flesh.

Test your sense of smell the next time you venture out into the wild.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Highway 211 East

Luray, VA 22835


(540) 999-3500

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