So you’ve noticed an unusual and slightly disgusting smell in your house and can’t for the life of you work out where it is coming from?
Then it hits you, it is coming from one of the places you least expected it to, your flowers!
So why do daffodils smell like urine?
There is actually a fair bit of science behind this.
And thankfully some daffodils smell sweeter than others.
So without further ado, let’s dive in.
Why Do Daffodils Smell Like Urine?
Some daffodils, particularly paperwhite narcissus, smell like urine because of an organic compound they contain called indole. Indole is used by certain flowers to attract pollinators and repel herbivores. In lower concentrations it smells sweet and floral, but as the level of indole increases, it emits a strong smell of urine.
“I can’t recall the number of times, I’ve come downstairs in the morning to be hit with the smell of urine, only to suddenly remember it is the bloody daffodils!”
“I thought the dog had peed on something until I twigged it was my lovely bunch of daffs.”
“I’m a cleaner and I recently went to a client’s house. I was convinced the cat had peed somewhere until, after a while, I realized it was the daffodils.”
“They smell like perfume and human urine to me. They are beautiful though.”
These were just a few quotes I collected when researching this article and believe me, there were many more!
So don’t worry, if you are asking yourself what is that horrible daffodil smell, you aren’t the only one.
What Causes Some Daffodils to Smell Bad?
First things first, not all daffodils smell like urine.
In fact, as we will find out later in this article, there are some with rather pleasant smells.
But there are a number of varieties that have an unpleasant scent, with the most popular offender being the paperwhite narcissus. Narcissus being the Latin or botanical name for daffodils.
So what is it in paperwhite narcissus that gives them their unusual aroma?
It is a naturally-produced biochemical called indole.
There are actually a number of plants that produce indole, including jasmine, gardenias and orange blossom.
Indole plays an important role in plant life, as it is used to attract pollinators and repel herbivores.
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Now indole is actually quite a fascinating compound, because as well as being present in a number of plants, it is also found in fecal matter, decaying animals, coal tar and cruciferous vegetals such as broccoli and kale.
To add even more intrigue to the matter indole is widely used when perfumers create fragrances. Many of the world’s most popular perfumes contain indole.
I know what you are thinking now.
How can something that is present in fecal matter and causes flowers to smell of urine be a popular ingredient in some of the world’s most successful perfumes?
It all comes down to concentration levels.
In low concentrations, indole has a ripe, sweet, floral smell, but it is as the level of indole increases that its stink does.
That is why some daffodils may smell far more strongly of urine than others – because they have a higher level of indole.
If you can find paperwhites with yellow flowers, such as Grand Soleil D’Or and Wintersun, they tend to have a more pleasant smell.
Also apparently breeders in Israel, which is the largest producer of paperwhite bulbs, are trying to create new varieties with lower levels of indole, so sweeter times may literally be ahead!
Why Everyone Smells Things Differently
A range of factors will influence the smell of your daffodil.
Of course, there are numerous varieties, then there is their age and the temperature of the room the flower is in.
Then there is the science of how we perceive smells.
As humans have evolved, we have become more reliant on our sight and our sense of smell has become relatively less important.
According to the Weizmann Institute of Science, our sense of smell was initially made up of around 400 different receptors.
Over time the genes of these receptors have gradually mutated.
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For some of us, some of these genes will have mutated to the point that a certain receptor will no longer work.
This leads to each of us having a different sense of smell, or as Andreas Keller, a geneticist at the Rockefeller University, puts it: “Everybody’s olfactory world is a unique, private world.”
That is perhaps borne out by this (very unscientific!) survey on the forum of the Gardeners’ World website.
Exactly 41% of respondents said the paperwhite narcissus had a ‘lovely fragrance’, 41% also said it had a ‘foul smell’. The remaining 18% said it was neither sweet nor foul.
So everyone really does smell things differently.
Which Daffodils Are Most Fragrant?
Ok so in light of what we have just learned I need to reiterate that everyone’s sense of smell is different!
Now not all daffodil smells are nasty, there are some varieties of daffodils out there that are acknowledged as having pleasant scents.
- Southern Erlicheer: A sweet and floral smell. It doesn’t particularly thrive in northern climates though.
- Tazetta Geranium: A combination of beauty and a lovely smell, with a sweet, light scent with a hint of lemon and brilliant white petals to match.
- Tazetta Avalanche: Another richly fragrant Tazetta, which charming clusters of around 15 to 20 flowers per stem.
- Fragrant Rose: A subtle rose-like smell, alongside a beautiful pink cup, with a greenish-white eye and pure white petals.
- Kedron: A sweetly fragranced jonquilla, with an eye-catching bright orange cup and buttery yellow flowers.
- Thalia: A sharper, tangier fragrance, with up to three or four pure white flowers per stem.
- Tahiti: A full and floral smell, with stunning soft yellow petals that contrast with smaller orange-red petals at the center.
- Cheerfulness: A lovely subtle fragrance, Cheerfulness comes in two shades, cream and yellow.
These are just a few examples. Most daffodils will have a fragrance of some sort, some will be sweet and some will be less sweet!
However they pretty much all have a cheerful appearance and, for many, herald the start of spring.
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If you want something to blame for your daffodils smelling like urine then blame it on the indole!
It is this organic compound that causes daffs to have a slightly odd odour.
Now the strange thing is indole is present in fecal matter and also many of our favorite perfumes!
It is all down to the concentration levels.
At lower levels it is sweet and floral, in higher amounts it is quite unpleasant.
That is why some daffodils smell quite nice and others quite disgusting, some contain higher levels of indole than others.
And of course, we all have a very particular sense of smell. What smells nice to one person, might smell horrible to another.
But if you are wondering why your daffodils smell like urine, there is an explanation and there are certainly a number of people who detect the same aroma!
Hope that is some comfort to you!