10 Favorite Smells of New England

From Fenway sausages to September's apple orchards, here are ten favorite, distinct smells of New England.

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smells of new england

Apple orchards are just one of the many quintessential smells of New England.

Aimee Seavey

Back in early 2009, one of the big news items coming from New York was that city officials have solved the several-year mystery of why at certain times the scent of maple syrup was wafting downtown. What I don’t know is whether they thought it smelled like the fake stuff or like the real New England maple, which to me is one of the sweetest, most marvelous scents I know.

At first some people were alarmed. Buildings were evacuated and inspectors marched in, looking, I presume, for a bearded, flannel-clad Vermonter hiding out in some attic nook with his syrup evaporator and a cord of wood, just boiling away. Eventually, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the smell had apparently emanated from a New Jersey factory that was using roasted fenugreek seeds in making an array of fragrances-and that from time to time things would continue to get a bit maply in the Big Apple, but no worries.

All of which got me thinking about the smells of New England I carry with me and what would happen if New Yorkers could get a whiff now and then of those. Because if maple syrup gets them in a tizzy, how about if they woke up to any of these New England scents, which we own as much as we own the mountains and rivers and forests?

— Mel Allen, Editor of Yankee Magazine

Favorite Smells of New England

Paper mills. More and more the northern New England paper mills have closed or have drastically changed their processing as the major paper companies have taken their work overseas. But the distinctive cabbage odor that came from those great smokestacks and carried on the wind for miles was once the singular smell of those company towns. Residents always said it was “the smell of money.” They were right. Most of their jobs have gone, and with them much of that peculiar, precious smell.

County-fair fried dough. Stroll the dirt paths between the stalls of the great New England county fairs and breathe deep-once you’ve embraced fried dough, it stays with you forever.

Freshly split maple trees. Late spring is when many of us have our winter wood delivered, whether we split it ourselves or it arrives already split. The most welcome smell for me is when my axe bites into a chunk of maple. The forest seems to explode all around me.

Italian sausages on Yawkey Way. There are stages to enjoying a Red Sox game. First, of course, is getting a ticket. But once that’s in hand, thousands of fans mill about in the blocks surrounding Fenway Park, all sharing in that excitement of a summer night, a game ahead. And it all begins with an Italian sausage smothered in peppers and onions. If you’ve been there, done that, you know that deep, earthy smell.

Low tide on the Maine coast. The mud flats are rippled; you smell the seaweed, the clams, the mud, the water. Seagulls provide the music.

Bait barrels on a lobstering wharf. The smell a lobster craves, and will go through the gates of hell for — or at least the opening of a lobster trap — to satisfy a primordial hunger. Head Down East, hang out on a wharf where lobster boats are at anchor, and soak it in.

Freshly steamed lobster and butter. That bait results in the smell of a New England summer evening – something that has brought people to the coast for generations. The bib dangling from the neck, the little cups of melted butter, the sharp, startling smell of the meat coming away from the tail, as you hold it poised just an instant before biting.

Potato fields in Aroostook County, Maine. I picked potatoes with a few dozen schoolchildren in Aroostook many years ago. It was for one of my first stories for Yankee, and what I remember so well is the smell of the dirt: thousands of acres of dirt being dug up by all those eager hands, and the potatoes overflowing the baskets. It was simply the smell of land and heritage all wrapped in soil and spud.

Apple orchard. Think late September. A day of sun. Maybe 55 degrees. You’re reaching into a tree full of McIntoshes, and you pick the first one you’ve held this season. Bite. The crunch, the taste, and the smell all meld. Fall.

Balsam fir. Trees and wreaths piled high from the forests of Washington County, Maine. Your house is transformed. For a while you put aside the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Christmas. For now, freshly cut balsam stands in your room, hangs by the door.

Those are my 10, for now. I also wanted to say summer hay, and November woodsmoke, not to mention the fried-clam shacks of the North Shore, sun lotion on the sands of Cape Cod… but I’ll hold off, mostly because I want to know which New England scents stay with you the most.

What would you add to our list of the Smells of New England?

This post was first published in 2009 and has been updated. 

  • I loved hearing the pure joy everyone experienced by means of our sense of smell. “Every good gift and every perfect present is from above….” A quote from a book I read, of course, the Bible. This is a beautiful article – it brought me closer to our loving generous Creator. Thanks! Barb

  • Lilacs, snowfall, Northern Spies, balsam, mud, November woodsmoke, dry fallen leaves, boiling sap,

  • It has been decades since I grew up on Boston’s North Shore and I now live in Colorado. I can’t think of summer without sniffing for the familiar smell of Sea and Ski lotion. Even the memory of that smell wafting across the beach remains with me whenever I think of warm summer days along the beach.

  • The heavenly scent of boiling maple sap condensing into maple syrup! Cider donuts and, of course, lilacs!

  • Since you didn’t mention Connecticut, here’s what I know from living here my entire life:

    1. The smell of the earth when it defrosts in March/April, especially on a rainy day. It’s a sour/wormy smell. Not really pleasant, but New England all the same.

    2. The smell of Hyacinths being given to Mom and Nan on Easter Sunday

    3. Lilacs… Oh definitely lilacs.

    4. Grandma’s whitest sheets hanging on the line… Summer, cotton, and sunshine.

    5. Low tide on the shoreline… sun shining down on seaweed and millions of small creatures scurrying to safety. Again, not a really pleasant smell, but memorable just the same.

    6. The smell of crushed marigold foliage as you plant them on your family’s grave plots.

    7. The smell of “pumpkin guts” as you carve your Jack-O-Lanterns.

    8. All the kitchen smells of Thanksgiving.

    9. The smell of the air during your first real snowstorm in December.

    10. Balsam, from your Christmas Tree.

  • Lilacs…Growing up there were huge old bushes right outside of my bedroom window. I loved that smell. I still do to this day.

  • The smell of cool, crisp, clean air..inhaled while standing in the fire tower atop Mt. Glastonbury in Vermont. On an an early October day.

  • The smell of boiling maple sap on a woodstove.

    The smell of steamed clams.

    The smell of molasses in a pot of baked beans.

    The smell of the roads during mud season.

    The clean smell of freshly fallen snow.

    The smell of the county fair. Fried things, cotton candy, baby animals, horses, freshly mowed field grass, and the grease of carnival rides.

    The smell of riding in a boat on a lake – outdoors smells mixed with rubber, plastic, gasoline fumes, and a whiff of smoke.

  • Autumn leaves on a cool October morning coupled with a cloud-free azure sky.

    Lilacs, lilacs, lilacs…..wishing, (every day), I could move back to New England:(

  • I love the smell of the flowers/shrubs that grow right along the coast in York Beach…. they’re like a sea rose – thorny bush — ?? I live in South Carolina now – North Myrtle Beach — but I’ve never been able to find those same plants – the flower almost looks like a bulb? Very hard to describe — does anyone know what they are ? I’d love-love-love to be able to buy/plant some here — not sure if the relentless summer heat might kill them though. Any input would be greatly appreciated ! :-)

    • The flower is called Rosa Rugosa, also called a beach rose. Loves Sandy soil. It is a smell of summer along the coast of Maine..,.

  • Daniel

    That CABBAGE smell also = toxic fumes. It is not pleasant either it stinks like rotten eggs mixed with a very almost overwhelming cabbage stench.

  • Oh Laura! You are right the smell of the daffodils is intoxicating at the moment, They are spread over the highways, fields, parks etc, like a bright yellow comforter and serve as a ray fo sunshine to us all here when the sun does not shine…which can be most days!!

    As for the smell of a peat fire Mel…hard to explain on paper! It has a heady, earthy smell and is indicitive to Ireland, (perhaps Scotland and Wales also). A true peat fire would be found in the rural country villages and towns now, and in areas such as Wicklow in the South East the region (County/State) known as the Garden of Ireland, peat bogs can still be found. In Dublin, (the County/State beside Wicklow) we would have a brick shaped peat fuel to burn in a real fire. However, there are restrictions on what you can burn due to smog laws brought in about 10-15 years ago approx! It is definitely as appealing as the smell of woodsmoke on a crisp Winter night! And it envokes thoughts of coming home from school (now work!!), closing the front door to the outside world, sitting down to a dinner of warming comfort food and cosying down by the fire for the night!
    It’s the smell of old Ireland, and smell of tradition and culture and is steeped in our Nations history. In times of trouble or great success it has been an eternal comfort and a silent giver of hope, as it’s heady aroma signaled the winding down of one day and the inevitable beginning of another! Hope that gives you some insight Mel!! Best I can do without bottling the scent and sending it over!! Mmm… that’s a thought! :0)

  • I love to inhale the warm, sweet vegetable breath of Rupert, my pet Randall bull, after he’s munched some molasses grain or moist, pungent haylage! (It is infinitely preferable to the decidedly non-vegetable suspiratons of my equally beloved cats.) ^ ^

    There is nothing so sweet as a summer meadow drying in the sun, clover and mint and timothy, and the perfume of milkweed can make you as dizzy as the honey-crazed bees, because you just want to keep breathing in. ***

    And I’ll bet Gail, from Dublin, knows the delicate fragrance of fluted daffodils, which must be brightening the meadows at home right about now with their pure, simple yellow!

  • Thank you to everyone who commented here. It is great fun me to read your own personal special scents .

  • gail o: Maybe you can tell us what a peat fire smells like. I wonder if it is as appealing as wood smoke is to us on a crisp winter night.

  • Me… I’m a Dubliner, and no not from NH! Dublin, Ireland, and when my Mom and I visited Wood’s Hole, Cape Cod and took the ferry to The Vineyard, we were guided into port on the wings of the seagulls and the scent of the salt-laden air!!
    The smell of a pancake and maple syrup breakfast, walking into our favourite diner on Beacon Hill…
    The aroma of incense wafting from the mysterious cluster of shops, down by the harbour in Salem…
    The smell of success in Providence RI, and the sweet smell of money in Newport RI!!
    These are the scents and smells that I experienced in New England, and I truly believe I belonged here in another life! We fit right in, and hope to experience some of the other smells mentioned like woodsmoke in the hills and the smell of Autumn leaves, when we go leaf-peeping in September! Fingers crossed! May sound touristy, but we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, any suggestions on what other things/places we cud see or do welcome!
    Beautiful, delightful… New England!! =
    Thanks for sharing Mel!

  • Going north on 128 toward Cape Ann, just before you can see the water, you smell the salt air. That first rest stop on I-95 once you cross into Maine, the scent of pine is heavenly. The smell of mud and decayed vegetation just under the snow as it melts in spring. The awesome aroma when you walk in the door of Coney Island Lunch on Southbridge St. in Worcester, MA. Ah, the memories!

  • Mel, I am a Midwesterner in place, a New Englander in heart. A summer trip to the Lakes Region of New Hampshire some years ago filled my lungs – and soul – with the purest air imaginable. I will always remember that fresh breeze with a hint of flowers and an unmistable whiff of the sea borne on the wings of far traveling birds. So cleansing, so calming, so right.

  • I love the smell of balsam in the great outdoors. Usually on a hike in the woods, the smell will come from out of nowhere and fill the air. I just stand there and sniff it all in. It always feels a little bit warmer in the spot where I can smell the balsam.

  • The temps are in the 40s this week and for the first time this spring, plants are unfolding a little and you start to smell spring on the breeze. Last night I sat down for dinner and we had a moth at the slider and even with the sun down the temperature was showing 50 degrees…
    I’m sure we’re in for more cold weather before spring arrives in March but catching the errant scent of greening things is enough to hold me until spring really gets here….

  • Danny, I don’t know where you live, but if it’s in New England, I know you have your own memorable scents that will always stay with you. Just the smell of autumn leaves. Thanks for reading.

  • I wish i had the time to smell every smell u mention and every town u mention and more


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