Most of us have bought perfumes to give as Christmas presents. We buy them, often at great expense, for our mothers, our lovers and spotty little brothers, to splash on and spray under. Perhaps, deep down, we are trying to conjure up those heady days of summer when natural scents abound. When the days are short, we can not expect the same intensity of perfume in the garden, but even in winter's depths we can satisfy our yearning for fragrance by planting scented winter-flowering plants.
Plant scents are part of a plant's efforts to succeed as an organism in the habitat in which it lives. For example, the aromatic oils of rosemary and lavender evolved as a defence against browsing animals. Floral scents have developed with the aim of attracting pollinators, such as birds, bees, and flies, upon which they depend for reproduction. The scent developed by plants is quite specific in its aim, so that sweetly-scented flowers attract bees which are seeking nectar, whilst flowers pollinated by flies develop a different fragrance altogether.
True, winter may well bring fewer flowers, but many of these have to be strongly scented to attract the fewer pollinators around. Although their colours are often pale and subtle, they revel instead in surprising shapes and haunting scents.
The small white flowers of Sarcococca are unassuming and its evergreen foliage without a great deal of interest, but its scent rivals anything bought in a bottle. S.hookeriana var dygina is the best and makes good underplanting for large shrubs, being shade-loving and tolerant of dry conditions.
White or shades of pink distinguish the shrubby, scented winter-flowering honeysuckles. Lonicera fragrantissima and L. standishii hide their flowers under their semi-evergreen leaves, but L. x purpusii, being fully deciduous, displays its clusters of creamy flowers on naked stems and is equally fragrant.
Abeliophyllum distichum is smothered with ivory-white flowers in February, and needs a sunny sheltered spot to capture its strong, spicy scent. The effect is similar to a white forsythia with a spicy fragrance.
For length of flowering and scent, it is hard to beat Viburnum bodnantense "Dawn", flowering from October to March and filling the air with deliciously scented rosy-pink flowers on bare branches. Even a small sprig, brought indoors, fills a room with exquisite fragrance. V.b. "Deben" equals it for fragrance, with pure white flowers.
Flowering later in winter and into spring, Daphne mezereum is without rival. An upright and deciduous shrub, it is smothered in deep pink and purple flowers of intense fragrance. Daphne odora "Aureomarginata" is as fragrant, though less showy, with deep pink and white flowers and glossy evergreen leaves edged with yellow.
Although pink, purple and white are predominant in the winter garden, yellows can be found to sharpen up colour schemes and add warmth. During mild spells, Azara microphylla's clusters of deep yellow flowers release a strong fragrance of vanilla in late winter. It has a rather tender disposition, but is worth a try against a south-facing wall, preferring a moisture retentive soil.
Chimonanthus praecox, the wintersweet, also needs a sunny spot, though it prefers a drier and poorer soil than the Azara. This is a lovely, hardy shrub but is one for patient gardeners only, as it takes some years to get into flowering. When mature, yellow waxy flowers hang from bare branches, so pale that you can almost see through to the purple centres. It is highly fragrant, flowering from December to March, with a sweet, spicy scent which will fill the whole house if planted near an open window. The variety, "Luteus" has larger flowers with a stronger lemon-yellow colouring, but less scent.
Enhance the colouring of the ordinary wintersweet by associating it with a fragrant mahonia. The best scented variety is M.japonica, flowering from December to March, with long yellow racemes and a lily-of-the-valley fragrance.
To spice up these golds and pale yellows, touches of orange or bronze can be found among the witch-hazels. Stands of coppery-orange Hamamellis x intermedia "Jelena" and the reddish-brown "Diane" produce a heady scent, looking especially good against evergreens. Hamamellis mollis, the common witch-hazel, is well known for its golden-yellow flowers, as is H."Pallida", a magnificent sulphur-yellow variety.
It's surprising how many of the low, ground-covering plants flowering in winter are scented. Crocuses and cyclamen as well as sweet violets, primulas and dwarf iris are either forgotten or not normally thought of as scented plants because we do not get down to ground level to enjoy their fragrance.
In the garden, fragrance can be found packaged in all sorts of natural shapes, colours and sizes.
© Naila Green 2010
Viburnum bodnantense in mid February