Delightful ‘box’

A wasp’s nest occupies the centre of a Sarcococca bush and whilst you can’t see any blossom (this illustration was taken in mid-summer) be assured that by now this same shrub is covered in bud and about to burst into scented bloom.

When you draw near you’ll get zapped with the delicious scent

Winter can be very bleak and for many there’s little in the garden to tempt them outside to the cold and wet. Most have been sated by summer’s generosity so they allow themselves and their gardens a winter break while concentrating on other seasonal pleasures. And yet, anyone who abandons the garden altogether during winter can hardly be called a keen gardener. I’m not for a moment advocating a mad rush outdoors every time it stops raining and the biting winds moderate, but a half hour today, perhaps, and another during the week ahead would certainly work wonders for the gardener’s constitution, if not the general appearance of the garden.

In saying that, I look back in these blanched and pinched days to winters past. Then, fully active and in my 20’s I was an all-weather gardener and nothing but total darkness drove me indoors. In my 30’s I stopped gardening in the rain and in my late 40’s drew the line at gardening in biting east winds. In my 50’s I put off ’till the morrow what should have been done on the day, and now that I have reached an indeterminable age, the only gardening jobs I do in winter are the vital kind; keeping the driveway clear of leaves, ice and debris, covering tender plants, feeding the birds, putting out bait for possible vermin, and watching for the arrival of the first bulbs of the new season.

And yet this month and next are the very best for distributing fragrance around the garden. In summer, there is always too much competition from barbecues, suntan lotion, and new-mown grass, but the scents of winter-flowering shrubs so freely distilled and dispensed, seem to hang forever in the cold air. With these, there is little need to bury your nose in the flower.

Sarcococca, the Christmas box, is one of these, the most wonderful of the evergreen, winter-flowering fragrant shrubs. It flowers in the dead of winter and these can be white or pink-tinged, yet tiny enough to go unnoticed among its three inch long dark-green leaves. However, these work overtime producing vast quantities of perfume that will, on a calm day, catch your attention at a distance of 20 feet and more. It’s a determined little plant, flourishing in sun or shade and in any kind of soil. Gradually it will attain a height of about two feet and in the process make a kind of thicket from which bits may be prised for propagation. It also suckers freely and these may be dug and replanted at virtually any time of the year. The blooms are sometimes followed by red or black berries, another reason why this plant is gaining popularity with flower arrangers.

Be advised that there are several species of Sarcococca in cultivation, all evergreen and all with white auxilliary clusters of tiny petal-less flowers.

The most often offered for sale (also the most suited to small gardens) is the variety humilis —-sometimes sold under its common name of Christmas Box. It is the smallest in the entire family. When planting, try to follow on with an under-planting of snowdrops in February.

Then, the white of the snowdrops will not alone look handsome (set against the dark evergreen leaves of the Sarcococca) but when you draw near to inspect the snowdrop bulbs you’ll get zapped with the delicious scent. Look for Sarcococca humilis now and plant when the opportunity arises.


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