Aromatherapy: Dirt Smell… or Is It?

Dirt with SeedlingThere is nothing more reviving to a gardener (especially in the throes of late winter) as the smell of dirt. Many of us start our seeds WAY too early and I don’t think the reason for this is to be planting seeds. I am willing to bet it is the smell of dirt. We start seeds too early because we need the smell of dirt.

My little seeds are safely nestled in their Plant Trainer in the southern window of my kitchen. Nothing brightens my day quite like running to that window in the morning (my neighbors have started to pull their shade but I am going to ignore that) and looking to see if there is a wisp of green shoving its way out of the soil.

That hasn’t happened… yet.

But, something else adds its favor to the day and that is the sweet smell of dirt. It is the self same smell I will find in the yard in a few months. It is the smell I will come to take for granted round about June, so use to it that it will be as normal as the smell of oxygen and smokestacks (at least here in Cleveland).

But right now, the smell is pure heaven. A promise, much like in the Christian story of the rainbow, the end is near and we will grow again.

This would explain why the neighbors have pulled the shades. You have to admit that the sight of a grown, half dressed, wild haired woman huffing dirt has got to be unnerving to most people.

It might interest you to learn that the smell of dirt is not in fact the smell of dirt. It is a bacteria called Streptomyces coelicolor which produces a chemical called geosmin which in turn is what we think of as the smells like dirt. Actually, the bacteria produces that smell when it is dying. In wet soil, it can’t breath and it suffocates. And that absolutely lovely smell of “dirt’ is the smell of dead bacteria.

Humans, and apparently all animals, are very sensitive to this smell. Some would even say that we are programmed to be attracted as the smell indicates that there is water nearby. Very handy to our long dead predecessors. It is theorized that it is a symbiotic relationship. We find water and the remaining living bacteria get a free ride out of a death trap on our shoes to a new location where, hopefully, they will not die. Not a bad deal.

Of course now that I know this, it puts a whole new spin on my Plant Trainer. It is not a nursery for new seedlings now. It is a mass graveyard for bacteria.

Sometimes curiosity can be a real killjoy.

18 thoughts on “Aromatherapy: Dirt Smell… or Is It?
  1. I am not sure what I think about the bacteria/dirt smell…as you said sometimes curiosity can be a killjoy…or at least borderline gross. But at least they are providing us with a wonderful smell as a result!


  2. Tamara on

    Cool post! I love this kind of stuff. Can’t wait to talk about this with my son for science.

    It’s only gross if you other-think it, like a lot of things. Compost, decay, bacteria, insects are all beautiful things that work together to make LIFE work. Considering the amount of cooperation the human race can achieve its amazing to see how life cooperates intimately at every level.


  3. peggy on

    I too love the smell of dirt–which is part of the reason I’m upset that my back yard currently under two feet of snow, which will melt, submerging my poor little yard under four inches of water.

    Hannah, I’m sure your next door neighbor can get together with one of my neighbors who wonders who the strange pregnant lady is who puts her face into one of his cedary-piney smelling front yard shrubs while she walks her dog. What ever kind of shrubby plant it is, it really does smell that good.


  4. As I no longer work in the “field” I love the first whiff of a greenhouse in spring. I know they use “soil-less media” rather than dirt, but the thought is there. The smell brings back thoughts of getting dirty, perhaps the Peter Pan Principle is at work here. I tend to hold until around late March or early April to ensure there will be green to see. We are a “sense”-ative bunch are we not?


  5. That wonderful smell of fresh dirt is really dying bacteria?! Wow. I’ll never inhale that lovely fragrance again without imagining little bacterii moaning about the unfairness of it all.


  6. Hanna on

    Leslie – There is that. I suppose we should be thankful that it does not smell like, say, a dead mouse or something like that. *ick*

    deb – honest – huffing. That is exactly what I do. 😉

    Matt and Jen – Glad to be helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

    Fern – Yeah, but so is half the bible. It is that whole origin of religion thing. 🙂

    Tamara – That is an awesome way of looking at it!

    peggy – Congrats on the little one! Cedar is an awesome smell. If you find out what it is, be sure to let me know. I will have to plant one too!

    Valerie – That sounds scary…

    Anthony – *snicker*

    gus – too true!

    Heavy Petal – Little voices crying “Help meeeeeee”. It’s like Horton Hears a Who.


  7. Faith on

    What I learned about this bacteria (or perhaps other bacteria along with it) is that it actually affects the endorphins in our brains and helps make us happier. Scientific fact, though, right now, I don’t remember where I read it.


  8. Great article! I liked it so much I put a link to your blog on my blog! Made me chuckle to think I’m sniffing dying bacteria! LOL, mary


  9. Just to add something oh so disgusting to your awesome post. When I was little I had pica or pika (weird urge to eat weird things). Some people crave chalk or something, I craved dirt. I would go to our gravel driveway, scoot away the rocks and faceplant right into the yummy dirt. I still love the smell, but thankfully I grew out of the urge to eat it. With that said who knows if I will want some more if I ever get pregnant 😀


  10. Huffing dirt is exactly what I do. My wife thinks I am crazy, especially when she walks in and I have a brown nose. No jokes please! Lol, but there is some kind of escape in doing it. Call it a ritual in natural aroma therapy. When the Geosmin have died I find myself going to my secret spot of clean untouched dirt and refreshing the batch. You could say I am almost addicted to it. When that “dirt smell” starts to fade, I just spritz on some filtered water and start that Geosmin dying process up for my nose again. In fact, I sift and filter the rocks and debris out of the dirt just to have the cleanest dirt possible. I love it and will never stop.


  11. Linda on

    Smelling dirt is something I have always loved to do. An apartment I lived in long ago had an enormous window in the kitchen. I used every inch of the space hanging above the window for hanging plants and dozens more on a very large shelf in front of the window. It sounds crazy, but I spent so much time going around to each of my plants with a spoon to loosen up the potting soil and sniffing to my heart’s content. Ahhhhhhhhh, there is nothing like it.


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