Eau Stanford, Where Art Thou?

March/April 2011

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Eau Stanford, Where Art Thou?

If you ask students and alumni why they chose Stanford, they will offer plenty of good reasons: the world-class academics, the chance to interact with Nobel winners, the basketball games at Maples. Or maybe they will describe the postcard beauty of the campus, the collage of Palm Drive against the backdrop of the Quad and the Foothills beyond. I went to Stanford for all and none of those reasons.

Truth be told, I came for the smell.

"Nice smell" isn't a reason that looks good on a college application (it certainly wasn't the one I wrote), but I was won over by the potent combination of flowers, fruit trees and eucalyptus. One scent in particular drew me throughout my first Bay Area visit, and I spent more than a decade trying to identify the mystery aroma.

We have plenty of nice smells in my native New England—May lilacs, autumn leaves, salty Cape Cod air. But this new scent hinted of the Pacific, of winters without snow shoveling, of a chance for reinvention. I would never pass for a California girl, not the kind that inspires Beach Boys songs and Hollywood clichés, but I sensed I could be a different person at Stanford.

While earning my degree, I would sometimes catch the scent, but usually I was too busy rushing to class to investigate whatever plant or tree triggered my epiphany. After I returned to Massachusetts and the years passed, identifying the scent took on mythic proportions: What was that smell?

My husband, Charlie Breitrose, grew up as a faculty kid at Stanford. When we visited his family every year, I used our trips as botanical expeditions. But after a week of exploring, I would have a perplexed husband, an assault of allergy attacks—and still no clue.

One trip, humbled at finding myself nose deep in a miniature tree on Mayfield Avenue, I decided it was time to quit. Perhaps I didn't need a landscaping lesson, but a new quest. Now that I'd accumulated such grown-up responsibilities as a mortgage, it wasn't likely that I'd relocate to follow a fragrance—but reinvention could take less dramatic forms.

As soon as I stopped looking for the answer (or, more accurately, sniffing for it), I found it. We were walking through the Stanford Shopping Center one day when we passed through a thick wall of perfume. "That's the smell," I told Charlie, pointing to a white-flowered tree.

With photographs and help from a Stanford arborist, we soon found our answer: Pittosporum undulatum, also known as Victorian box, or mock orange. As it turns out, the tree is native to Australia, not California. So much for my botanical instincts. I guess sometimes you follow the wrong directions, but you still end up exactly where you need to be.

JENNIFER KAVANAUGH, MA '99, a writer in Watertown, Mass., works for a law firm.

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