Winter blossoms' dazzling effect on your garden has to be seen to be believed, writes Peter Dowdall.
Sarcococca Confusa — now that’s much more of a mouthful than the common name for this plant, Christmas box.
It’s referred to commonly as that as it is said to flower during the festive season, however in my experience it should be referred to as late winter/early spring box as, whilst it is in full bud during December, it doesn’t open up into full, sweetly scented bloom until well into the New Year.
To look at, sarcococca is a pretty nondescript, evergreen plant. Not unattractive but not outstandingly showy in the garden either though the berries which are on the plant now from last years flowers are striking and very pretty, turning from a blood red to black in colour as they fully ripen.
The flower buds form on the long, slender stems during autumn and early winter and you would be excused for missing them as they are not conspicuous.
You could also miss the flowers unless you were looking for them. Small, creamy-white flowers not unlike hamamelis or witch hazel in shape and appearance though much smaller and nearly hidden too, beneath evergreen foliage, whereas the witch hazel blooms are much more obvious on the naked deciduous branches.
To see them merely in a photograph, you could never believe the effect that they have on an entire garden.
The fragrance of these flowers is so all-encompassing, it takes hold of the gardener or garden visitor and wraps you in an olfactory trance when within reach and that’s no accident for that is the purpose of this fragrance.
No, not to entrance us humans, what good are we to it, no, it is giving of its very best in order to attract the few bees and other pollinators that may be around during these quiet months in the garden.
It’s also called sweet box which is probably a more descriptive and apt common name so sweet is the scent.
It first struck me several years ago now when I was asked to recommend summer-flowering plants to someone that nearly all of the ones that came immediately to mind were winter flowering.
After roses, lavender and choisya I had to stop and think of scented, summer flowering shrubs whereas the winter-flowering plants kept coming.
The sarcococca is near top of the list but there are some other serious contenders for the top spot.
Chimonanthus praecox or wintersweet is a real treasure. Growing as high as 2.5m, it should be given the shelter and protection of a south-facing wall, ideally. If you give this stunning plant the right conditions and it is happy enough with its position it will establish to give you and more importantly your garden insects the most amazing winter flowers.
The scent of chimonanthus blooms is really quite amazing but I also love the way the flowers look. Quite unlike other flowers, they are produced at nodes along the stem, the outer petals being a pale-yellow cream colour, nearly transparent and inside these are shorter red/purple petals. You might walk past them not noticing, though I would be surprised if you did.
Whether or which, once you do stop to admire, it is the detail and the simplicity at the same time within these beautiful blooms which will amaze you.
Hamamelis mollis ‘Brevipetala’ is one of the most strongly scented of all the witch hazels and very free flowering.
The bright yellow flowers are produced in abundance with shorter petals than some of the other yellow coloured cultivars but don’t let that stop you from finding this beauty.
A ‘Brevipetala’ in full golden flower emitting the most delicious aroma to attract the bees is such a sight and scent to behold in the winter garden, a plant which is putting you under its spell through several of your senses and not just one. Perhaps that’s where the “witch” comes from in the common name.
A substantially larger specimen than either the sarcococca or the chimonanthus, this witch hazel can reach 3.5m–4m in height and will achieve a similar spread. Before the blooms open, the foliage must drop to provide the naked skeleton from which the flowers will emerge. Before leaf drop this beauty provides the garden with that other, magical display, that of autumn colour.
The leaves turn bright golden and copper in colour before falling creating an autumnal display as good as any other, making it worthy of a place in the garden even if it never flowered.
There are more too, it would be absurd not to talk of that genus most associated with scented winter flowers, daphne.
Skimmia blooms too will open up during late winter and early spring, providing even more scent as will Viburnum ‘Dawn’, Lonicera ‘Winter Beauty’, and Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’.