Peter Dowdall is in olfactory overdrive from the scent of irresistible January flowering plants.
Why is it that all the best scented shrubs are in full bloom during January and February?
Okay, so maybe that’s not totally true, because with that question I’m ruling out roses, lavenders, and several other summer beauties. But it is true to say that what January may lack in terms of colour in the garden, it more than makes up for with scent and beautiful aromas.
I don’t know the answer to why so many of our scented plants are at their best at the moment but I’m sure one of the many reasons is that there are so few pollinating insects around at this time of the year that the plants in flower now work very hard to attract them.
Edgeworthia chrysantha is one of these. Reaching about 2 metres in height when mature and with a similar spread, the flowers on this species, also known as oriental paperbark, open now from buds produced at the end of last year’s growing season.
With bright yellow blooms which fade to a more off-white colour, they are beautiful to look at on the bare stems— but it’s the scent which will really stop you in your tracks.
The common name refers to the fact that the wood from edgeworthia was used to make the paper for Japanese banknotes. I have no idea whether this is still the case or not, but what a refreshing lift to the senses on a dull January morning this plant is.
Grow it ideally near a south facing wall where it can get as much sunlight as possible and also it is worth noting that it is not totally hardy, accepting temperatures to about -4C or -5C but not willing to put up with anything colder.
It can do well beneath deciduous trees provided that it is towards the edge of the shade canopy ensuring it receives good levels of sunlight. When grown in this situation, with early spring flowering bulbs beneath, it will create a wonderful display.
Christmas Box is an easier name to pronounce than sarcococca but for me it’s a common name that isn’t entirely accurate as this low-to-medium growing evergreen shrub is rarely in flower in my garden at Christmas.
Rather, from January to April I enjoy the heady, nearly overpowering scent. There are many varieties of sarcococca with S confusa being possibly the most widely available, growing to about 70cm in height and a spread of about 1 metre when mature.
S hookeriana dignya is a taller growing form with more slender leaves and more visible flowers growing to about 1.2 meters in height with a spread of over 2 metres with a suckering habit. There are several more available and all are evergreen, strongly scented at the moment and all will produce small black berries.
One of the plants I am most frequently asked about at this time of the year is Daphne and in particular, Daphne bholua “Jacqueline Postill”. Not at its best yet but opening up into flower over the next few weeks this outstanding plant for winter colour and scent should be better known and more widely available.
It quite simply has no match in the garden — smothering itself in white flowers that emerge from purple-pink buds during the next few months. It’s semi-evergreen which quite simply means neither deciduous nor evergreen.
It will lose some of its leaves and retain some, unless the winter is very severe, and will grow to over 2m and has a spread when mature of about 1m.
There is a beautiful, mature specimen in Fota arboretum and such is its lure that they have had to erect a fence around it to stop people picking the flowers when in bloom. I can only presume that people must be out of their senses from the strong sweet aroma.
I have admired and noticed more specimens than normal last year and they certainly looked better than normal, with more blooms than in other years, which I am putting down to the exceptional summer of 2013. I can’t wait to see what will be produced this year after the sensational summer weather we enjoyed in 2014.
Possibly my favourite of all the winter flowering shrubs is one called Wintersweet or Chimonanthus praecox, a beautiful large shrub it will need the shelter of a south or west facing wall and a neutral or acid soil to thrive.
If you have these conditions then do your best to source a specimen — you will not be disappointed. Pretty, delicate and highly-scented flowers are produced on naked branches now.
So don’t forget your garden during this month, for in many ways it is now you need it most, to lift those spirits on bleak January days.
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