Scent of a Worm

Worm fact of the day: there is such a thing as earthworm-scented perfume. You can get it from Demeter Fragrance, a company that also sells perfume that smells like grass, tomatoes, laundromats, and gin, among other things.

I phoned the company as soon as I heard about it and ordered three bottles. “Can you ship them overnight?” I asked, frantic with excitement.

“Of course,” said the woman on the phone, calmly. I got the idea she was used to overwrought customers like me.

The bottles arrived shortly. I tore open the package and stood holding one of the plainly-labeled bottles in my hand, trying to summon up the scent of earthworms in my mind. I thought of the garlic smell my composting worms were supposed to give off, and of the legendary lily-scented worms that are quite possible extinct now in Oregon. I remembered the nightcrawlers I’d dug out of my garden and tried to imagine what they smelled like. Nothing came to me. I just couldn’t pull that scent out of my memory. It probably didn’t help that I’d kept them at such an arm’s length, refusing to put my nose right down to them and breathe.
Finally I pulled off the cap and sprayed it into the air. It hit me, instantly familiar. Worms. No doubt about it. It was the smell of dirt and rotten leaves and compost piles, and also the faint scent of skin, worm skin. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was just vaguely—invertebrate.

I wasted no time getting in touch with Christopher Brosius, co-founder of the company. He told me that he created the scent for customers who liked their “Dirt”fragrance but wanted a “Mud” scent. “We called it ‘Earthworm’ because it smelled very much like the dirt in my garden after a heavy rain when the earthworms tended to come to the surface,” he told me. I wanted to know whether he’d brought worms into the lab when he was developing the fragrance, but he was quick to assure me that “there are no actual earthworms in the scent nor were any smelled during the development of it.”

Brosius said he often draws on his memories of his Pennsylvania childhood in developing his earthy, garden scents. “When I was a child I did fish fairly often in the summer. My family spent a great deal of time on the river. My father and I did occasionally dig up our own earthworms to use as bait. Oddly enough, however, I don’t associate the Earthworm scent with that particular experience – to me it smells much more like mud after the rain.” He wears the fragrance himself with floral scents like “Honeysuckle” or “Dandelion.”

He wouldn’t tell me much about what goes into the formulation of a scent like “Earthworm, except to say that it, like “Dirt,” is a blend of mosses, leaves, grass, wood, and bark: “basically the things that would eventually decompose and form dirt.” One of the newest fragrances in his line is “Thunderstorm.” I think about the way that earthworms crawl to the surface during a storm and wonder if the two scents, when worn together, would smell like “Earthworms On the Sidewalk After a Rainstorm.” Suddenly I can see the entirety of the earthworm story told in these fragrances. “Earthworm” and “Rubber” might smell like my plastic worm composter; “Earthworm” and “Grass” like the nightcrawler castings on a golf course.

“It’s a surprisingly popular scent,” Brosius said. “It sells at smaller upscale shops with a very sophisticated clientele. One customer who sells earthworms at the Green Market in Union Square buys it for her customers. And if memory serves, there is also a bait and tackle shop somewhere in Alabama that stocks it.”