using scent to talk
about forest succession
& atmospheric science


prospect park, brklyn

basswood, aka American linden, Tilia americana, bloom

bitternut hickory, Carya cordiformis, nut oil
eastern white pine, pinus strobus, resin
oak moss, Evernia prunastri, lichen
spicebush, Lindera benzoin, bark, foliage
tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, bloom

Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, opened in 1867. They left undisturbed two primary forests, called the Ravine and the Midwood, dominated by oak, hickory, and chestnuts. By 1911, not one chestnut remained due to the Great Chestnut Blight.1 The tree species we selected—basswood, tulip tree, and eastern white pine—are the most fragrant of those present pre-European settlement in such a forest type. Also included: hickory nuts as a carrier oil, and a lichen traditionally used in perfumery that grows on oak bark.   

1. Newman, Andy. “Returning Chestnut Trees to City Where Blight Was First Found.” New York Times, City Room, 23 March, 2011.


near future 
prospect park, brklyn

ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, foliage, fruit
white mulberry, Morus alba, foliage, bloom
wild persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, fruit
sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, resin
tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, foliage, bloom  

Foresters are experimenting with ‘assisted migration’ planting southern trees species in northern states as “…the climate will [likely] change 10 times faster than many tree species can move.”3 Using an experimental forest in Rhode Island as reference, we included temperate species predicted to do well in this region, such as wild persimmon. Also included is the odorous Tree of Heaven which tolerates nutrient poor or salty soils, pollution, and heat. 

2. Velasquez-Manoff, Moises. “Can Humans Help Trees Outrun Climate Change?” New York Times, 25 April, 2019.


“The aroma of a pine forest on a warm summer day is down to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cedar, cypress and eucalyptus owe their pungent aromas to their unique blends of these organics. With climate change, we are set for more VOCs and a more fragrant world.” 5

The Science      

The chemical profile of a forest—determined by ecosystems, plant matter, and environmental conditions—results in a unique ‘cocktail' of atmospheric reactions.4 These in turn affect the level of tropospheric ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere, which can both reflect and absorb solar energy and, when combined with anthropogenic pollution, lead to effects like ozone smog which impact climate and human health. The type of trees in a forest, take for instance a rainforest replaced by a palm oil plantation, “will shift the chemistry in the sky above.”5 However, the complexity and invisibility of these interactions make it hard for us to comprehend such changes. Interestingly, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that trees emit are also responsible for the smells we perceive on a walk in the woods. 

4. Toma, S., and S. Bertman. "The atmospheric potential of biogenic volatile organic compounds from needles of white pine (Pinus strobus) in Northern Michigan.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 12, no. 4, 2012, p. 2245.

5. King, Anthony. “A Volatile Question”. Chemistry, 28 January, 2016.

The Project      

Forests pre-logging smelled different from today's forests, and that smell is ever-changing as forest succession and climate change march on.

This research is a sensory teaching tool to talk about the delicate complexity of our forests in a warming climate. We use ethnobotanical processes, such as distillation, tinctures, and smoke, to create scent combinations that map forest succession in Prospect Park, Brooklyn—from precontact to future scenarios.

Our olfactory sense triggers memories—and by association, one might say that smell is linked to time in human perception.