Plants for winter scent

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Since Christmas the weather has been almost universally ghastly... Over the last couple of days, however, I have noticed everything change; the skies are blue and the sun is shining.

Viburnum flowersSince Christmas the weather has been almost universally ghastly - rain, fog, leaden skies and general Januaryness. Over the last couple of days, however, I have noticed everything change; the skies are blue and the sun is shining.

In the hedges buds are fattening, the earliest pussies are appearing on the willows (faintly interesting fact: in the Sound of Music, Marta - one of the cute kiddies - chooses pussy willow as one of her favourite things) and daffodils are pushing relentlessly upwards. I am not so foolish as to think that spring is here - we are more than likely to get whacked by frost or snow before then - but at least it is showing willing.

One of the best things about this time of year is scent. Flowers are pretty rare but there are a few plants out there that punch way, way above their weight when it comes to fragrance.

As an example Sarcococca hookeriana, a sparky little evergreen shrub with deep maroony leaf stems and tiny white flowers like the tassels on a stripper. Last year I had one in the back of my car overnight; the plant was young and had only a single flower but the scent in the car was almost unbearable. Like being dipped in vanilla.

Another corker is winter-flowering honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima. Not a climber but a medium-sized shrub with ditzy white flowers dotted along its semi-naked branches. It has a sharper, slightly spiced scent - more aftershave than soft florals.

The most common is Viburnum bodnantense, which has boudoir pink flowers and smells of a Duchess's swansdown powder puff: slightly old-fashioned and sweet. This is a tall, upright shrub which, like the Lonicera, is really pretty boring for most of the rest of the year.

Finally, a winter-flowering tree that, although without scent, is well worth the space - Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood). Its flowers are always a surprise; tiny, deep red threads that seem to slowly push out their buds like hermit crabs squeezing from their shells. Parrotia is part of the witchazel family and makes a very spectacular small tree.

Always place these scented plants by doors or pathways - there is no point having something like this flowering its little heart out in some corner of the garden that is never visited in wintertime. All of them have small flowers but who needs great blowsy petals when you have scent that will carry on the wind and enchant anybody who comes within fifty feet?

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Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:30

I had the pleasure yesterday to walk through the Embankment Gardens in London and it's just amazing how much more advanced flowers and shrubs are in the city's micro-climate. Thousands of daffodils in bloom. I came across some Viburnum bodnantense also in bloom and the scent was like Lily-of-the-Valley. However the flowers were yellow and white. I wonder what they are called?