City Cast

Why the Desert Smells So Good After a Rain

Scott Dickensheets
Scott Dickensheets
Posted on September 5   |   Updated on September 12
Photo of desert after rain, with rainbow

If only newsletters had scratch-and-sniff technology, this would smell great. (Putt Sakdhnagool/Getty)

The second best thing about (non-flood-causing) rainfall in Southern Nevada is that it gives everyone a moment of drought-hope as they nod and say, “We sure needed that.” 👀 But the best thing? Petrichor.

Petrichor is the term for the scent after a rain — a couple of Aussies coined it in 1964 from the Greek words petra, which means stone, and ichor, which refers to the fluid in the veins of the gods. (Lotta good cat-naming implications in that one.) It can exude from rocks and soil, as rain activates bacteria lodged there; but mostly it comes from plants, and here in the Mojave, that means creosote. Rain prompts the bushes to release certain protective oils and compounds into the air, and that fragrance — earthy, slightly sweet — has become beloved by desert dwellers. Indeed, Arizonans think it should be their state scent. Yo, take a number, AZ.

One theory holds that humans find petrichor so appealing because for millennia we have depended on rain for survival. But petrichor may do more for you than impart a mild post-deluge euphoria. Research by the University of Arizona into the Sonoran Desert’s petrichor has identified some 15 compounds released by desert plants after a rain that “may in many ways contribute to improving sleep patterns, stabilizing emotional hormones, enhancing digestion, heightening mental clarity, and reducing depression or anxiety," says research scientist Gary Nabhan.

So maybe it's true that we sure needed that.

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