The Sweet, Sweet Smell of Winter
by Debbie Teashon
Viburnum 'Charles Lamont'
Chimonanthus praecox var luteus
No matter how long any winter flowering plant has lived in my garden, I am delightfully surprised when I walk outside and the surrounding scent smells as if spring has sprung and found my nose!
It's hard to imagine blossoms opening during the gloomy days of winter. It is even harder to believe that you could be breathing in their wonderful fragrance this time of year. Yet it's true. Many fine selections of shrubs will fill a garden with luscious, sweet aromas during the throes of winter.
Granted a winter garden is not going to be as lush as the other seasons. It is the season most often forgotten during spring fever's mad dash to plant. We fill the garden with flowers for spring, summer, and fall. With the exception of the holidays, we turn our backs on the garden during the coldest season.
Winter doesn't give us too many ambitious flowers when it comes to frills and color. Yet some of the most inconspicuous winter flowers are not so quiet in the odor department. They are well worth a spot in the garden.
Winter fragrance is on hand with the deciduous winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). Not much to look at most of the year, every winter the shrub rewards you with white flowers oozing with honeysuckle scent. You can tell by some of its other common names – fragrant honeysuckle, January jasmine, kiss-me-at-the-gate, and sweet breath of spring — it has a fragrant reputation. I've seen this shrub planted as an informal hedge and it makes fantastic scaffolding for small clematis to grow through to liven up the hedge with some color during the warmer months.
Another shrub that has little going for it the rest of the year is wintersweet. In late January, when it opens up its dangling, bell-shaped flowers you understand why its common name is wintersweet. On a calm, cloudy day, the scent fills the garden. This shrub also makes a great platform for a small vine those flowers later in the year. Chimonanthus praecox var. lutea has brighter yellow flowers than the straight species, Chimonanthus praecox. Planted in front of a dark evergreen, the wintersweet's flowers stand out better in the winter landscape.
Sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) is an evergreen shrub that you can prune into a short hedge, or let grow to its natural height of 3-5 feet tall and wide. Planted under a tree such as coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku') will give it shade during the growing season. Sweet box gives a glossy, evergreen presence all year. The flowers are small, but they pack a wallop when it comes to fragrance. Additional bonus of shiny, black berries accompany the flowers in winter.
Related to boxwood, sweet box does not have the same annoying feature as its cousin. When the foliage gets wet, boxwood fills the garden with a scent of a well-used cat litter box. I prefer the honeyed scent of a sweet, sweet box in winter.
Viburnum x bodnantense is a fantastic winter bloomer. The flowers begin in November and continue throughout winter. Two good cultivars are 'Dawn' (sometimes labeled 'Pink Dawn') and 'Charles Lamont'. The flowers look similar with pink buds opening to white, fragrant flowers. Everyone should have at least one of these shrubs in close viewing distance of a window, and within smelling distance of a walk to the mailbox. You can plant these in partial shade or full sun.
Silky, silvery buds open to fragrant, yellow flowers on an Edgeworthia papyrifera, commonly called paper bush or rice plant. Related to the Daphnes (some Daphne cultivars also have notable winter fragrant flowers); it's a bit fussier about where it will grow. Humus rich, well-drained soil is necessary. It doesn't like drought conditions, so you will need to water it regularly throughout the growing season. When winter arrives, the shrub will reward you with wonderfully fragrant yellow flowers! The bark from this shrub is used to make paper.
When you plant some of these winter flowering shrubs, come winter you may walk through the garden and wonder which one is scenting the air. Is it the wintersweet with the yellow dangling blossoms on bare stems? On the other hand, is it the tiny white flowers from the sweet box coming to call?
Who knows, and who should care, just stand in the fragrant cloud and breathe in the sweet, sweet smell of winter.