See Also: Fragrant Shrubs for Every Season
Flowers for Winter Fragrance
by John Richmond
Even though it was twenty five years ago I remember it well. I'd just moved to Plymouth and was walking through town on a February day when I was hit by a wall of scent. Sweet and powerful, it lingered in the air and brightened my day. I had to find out what was causing it. There seemed no obvious candidates until I saw a nondescript little shrub with wispy white flowers a few yards away. That was the source, and that was my first encounter with a Christmas box, Sarcococca.
There is something special about a plant that flowers in cool climate winters. When it also has a powerful scent then it becomes very desirable. It may have no impact for the rest of the year - but it's still worth growing for those brief moments that remind you that winter is just a passing season and spring will soon return.
As the years passed I recognised the worth of other powerfully scented winter flowers. Now, I wouldn't be without them. Every garden, no matter how small, has room for one or two winter scented flowers. Try some of my favourites.
Most powerfully scented of all in my current garden is Daphne odora 'Aureo-marginata'. Unusually for a variegated evergreen it is actually hardier than the type, surviving temperatures down to 10Celsius. The flowers are small, pink and white confections born on the end of each branch, each endowed with a sharp, sweet fragrance that carries for yards in still air. Unlike many other daphnes it is fairly easy to grow, thriving in my moist acid clay in a position in summer sun and winter shade. Usefully, the golden edge to the dark green leaves is at it's brightest in winter, enhancing the effect.
Because I can grow this I don't grow the hardier Daphne mezereum. This is deciduous, with every winter bare branch wreathed in small, sweetly scented, pink or white flowers. Hardy to Zone 5, it would be a good choice for any garden where children or dogs won't be tempted by the poisonous berries that follow. These are small shrubs, unlikely to outgrow their space for many years.
Built on a bigger scale is Mahonia japonica. In recent years this has been replaced in many gardens by hybrids such as 'Charity' or 'Winter Sun'. Spectacular though these are in flower they lack the powerful, lily-of-the-valley scent of the species. I'm quite happy to trade off the slightly less elegant growth of the species for it's long season of winter flower and scent. This is capable of making a large shrub but can be kept smaller by annual pruning of older wood. Regrowth of the stout stems and rosettes of holly like leaves is swift.
Chinese witch hazel, Hamamaelis mollis, and its hybrids with H.japonica will eventually grow into small trees but are likely to stay as broad, medium to large shrubs for many years. There are numerous varieties on the market, some earlier flowering than others and with flowers that vary in colour from pale yellow to bright orange, but all are desirable. The wispy petals seem unaffected by even heavy frosts and the scent can penetrate from one end of the garden to another as soon as the sun comes out and the day begins to warm up. These are quite expensive plants - but well worth the investment. Suitable for any deep, humus rich, acid to neutral soil they need sunlight to develop their bonus of good autumn colour.
Don't despair if your soil is alkaline. Winter sweet, Chimonanthus praecox, will grow quite happily on chalk or limestone soils and fill the garden with spicy winter fragrance. This makes a smaller bush than the witch hazels but will still take up a reasonable amount of space. A little less hardy - Zone 7 as opposed to Zone 5/6 for the witch hazel - it needs a sunny site if the small yellow flowers are to be freely produced.
Also fairly large - but well worth the space if, like me, your winters alternate between cold and milder spells - is Viburnum x bodnantense. Any of the forms, 'Deben', 'Dawn' or 'Charles Lamont' offer a succession of sweetly scented clusters of small, pink, tubular flowers carried on the naked branches between autumn and spring. Suitable for any reasonable soil, this is hardy to zone 7. For colder climates V farreri, one parent of the hybrids, will grow successfully in Zone 6.
I've mentioned some larger shrubs in the last few paragraphs. If you only have a small garden you may feel that there is no room for something that is mainly interesting in winter. I sympathise, but there is an answer. All of these can be used as a host for a climber. Either an annual climber, grown from seed each year, or one that can be cut back in autumn. Clematis viticella varieties are excellent for this, needing harsh winter pruning for best flowering.
Alternatively, if you are really short on garden space then go for the Christmas box. There are a few varieties of Sarcococca on the market. All have the powerful sweet scent that first got me interested in winter fragrance. All make unobtrusive little shrubs that can be tucked in almost anywhere, even in poor soil and heavy shade. Site them within range of a frequently visited path and for a few short winter weeks you'll be knocked out by one of the sweetest scents of the year.
About the Author John Richmond is a keen gardener who lives and works in the South West of England. He has a scientific background as a professional ecologist. He has written occasional articles for gardening and other magazines in Britain since 1984, specializing in garden wildlife issues and hardy plants. His own garden can be visited via the web, and correspondence