smell fan

  • Photo of part of the smell wheel and plant

smell fan

The Smell of Spring


The Smell of Spring is an interdisciplinary olfactory art project crafted to evoke the transient essence of spring through the use of thoughtfully curated scents. This collection draws inspiration from the local environment by featuring scents derived from endangered plants native to the Delaware Valley region affected by habitat loss and global warming. This project is done in collaboration with the Monell Chemical Senses Center; our team aims to contribute to the conservation and preservation of the ephemeral scents of spring.

This interactive public engagement, at the 2024 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show’s Family Frolic Day (Sunday March 3rd), effectively conveys local habitat threats through the, often overlooked, sense of smell. Our goal is to capture these scents before they vanish. Smell has the striking ability to transport us to specific moments and places defined by unique aromas.

Attendees are invited to spin the wheel, and win a corresponding scent along with our new field guide cards. The card invites users to seek out the given scent within their  environment by including a section for field notes; this allows participants to add their own individual observations.

Design Process

Smell Studio is a multidisciplinary team of students with backgrounds in graphic design, geography, environmental science, and fine art. Students collaborated by organizing themselves into teams; scent selectors, painters, designers, and foragers to utilize their strengths when crafting the exhibit. The experience consists of three interactive projects- the wheel of Spring Scents, take-home cards, and a poster poll. 

First, the Scent Selectors decided which 10 native aromatic plants to showcase alternatives to the popular ornamental (non-native) plant selection at the flower show. The chosen scents highlight the significance of plants and decomposers' roles within curating a sustainable environment. 

Then, Smell Studio visited the Monell Center to smell and select specific scent compounds that would be used to represent each native plant. Next, our painting duo visually represented the 10 chosen plants in their early spring form. Taking the baton, our design team used their graphic design expertise to fabricate a wheel design that would visually entice participants, considering the natural color schemes and common smell notes of each plant. The design team collaborated with team members with native plant knowledge to produce field guide cards for participants to take with them for further exploration. Finally, members of our team foraged environmental plant samples to compose a collaged poster for participants to share their ‘scent of spring’. 

The Featured Scents:

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) – Medicinal-Green – (Phenolic, Sharp, Green) – Gently rub the leaves of wild geranium to smell the aromatic compound of Geraniol, which is also found in the scent glands of honey bees, who use it to mark nectar-bearing flowers. 

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) – Light Floral – (Floral, Powdery, Sweet) – When in bloom, the small white-blue flower clusters of Phlox divaricata give off a floral scent with honey notes. 

Toadshade Trillium (Trillium sessile) – Musty – (Meaty, Musty, Medicinal) – Ants carry trillium seeds back to their nest to feast on the outer layer called the elaiosome, which smells like dead insects to ants. They discard the seeds around their colony, which can cause trillium to bloom in circular patterns. 

SpiceBush (Lindera benzoin) – Herbal Spice – (Herbal, Spice, Citrus) – The fruit of the spicebush, when dried, can be used as an allspice substitute. Its leaves, when crushed, elicit a strong herbal scent. 

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) – Yeasty – (Sulfurous, Yeasty, Decay) – Skunk cabbage takes 5-7 years to bloom, and if left undisturbed, can grow to live for 200 years. 

Morel (Morchella esculenta) – Fungi – (Mushroom, Fishy, Musty) – Morel mushrooms are prized edible mushrooms known to grow in-mass after wildfires! Kennett Square, PA is considered the mushroom capital of the world; explore the mushroom history of this area.

Deadwood (decomposing Atlantic White Cedar) – Woody – (Earthy, Woody, Musty) – Atlantic White Cedar was a widely dispersed tree in this region, but due to saltwater intrusion, their numbers have slowly declined. Smell them while you can!

Leaf Litter (Microbial collaboration) – Decomposition – (Earthy, Woody, Musty) – In leaf litter, countless microbes collaborate to break down leaves into nutrients. This process releases organic compounds, creating the distinctive, earthy scent of leaf litter.

Soil (Humus) – Earthy – (Earthy, Woody, Musty) – Healthy soil can sequester excess carbon, reducing the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Breathing in the smell of good soil can boost your mood, aromatic compounds such as geosmin increase brain chemicals like serotonin. 

April Showers (Precipitation) – Rain – (Ozone, Cooling, Metallic) – Snow and ice absorb molecules in their local environment creating a unique scent. Rain on healthy soils may decrease stress and improve your mood.


We would like to thank our many collaborators, including: 

  • The Rowan School of Earth and Environment for loaning the School of Earth and Environment van for transportation to Monell Chemical Senses Center.
  • Monell Chemical Senses Center Team for their assistance in crafting an afternoon full of ‘spring’ smell training to curate the scent palette for our “Smell of Spring'' wheel. We would like to specially acknowledge Dr. Robert Pellegrino, Jennifer Margolis (Senior Research Technician), Karen Kreeger (Director of Science Communications), and Ahmed Barakat (Communications Coordinator) for their continued collaborative efforts.
  • The Rowan Print & Sign Center for their speedy production in delivering our Smell Wheel and field guide cards. 
  • And our dear pal Jim Greenwell for his help applying the Wheel and fabricating our poster frame with birch wood.