During the winter months, every flower in the garden is cherished like a precious gemstone. Once spring arrives, we’ll enjoy an elegant sufficiency of tissue-fine blooms, followed by an embarrassment of floral riches in the summer. Autumn offers an equal abundance of bright colour, before being swallowed up by the dull browns and frosted greens of winter.
Bringing relief to the midwinter garden are the sweetly scented flowers belonging to a select band of plants that have evolved to make the most of the colder months. Winter flowering plants are not often blessed with large, showy blooms. In the chill wind and rain these are unlikely to survive long enough to attract pollinating insects. Instead, many employ scent as a signal that they are ready to reproduce. In cold air, scent travels more slowly, so most winter flowering shrubs and trees are adapted to produce potent, heady scents which linger for longer. The best advice I can offer is to position winter scented plants close to your front door so that you are greeted by heavenly perfumes every time you cross the threshold.
Here are my top picks for fabulous winter fragrance:
Sarcococca confusa AGM: sweet box
No garden of mine would be without a large patch of this tough, diminutive shrub. Suckering stems carry green, lustrous leaves for 12 months of the year, further adorned by numerous clusters of honey-scented, filament-like flowers in January and February. A single sprig, cut and carried indoors, will perfume a large room. Sarcocca ruscifolia var chinensis ‘Dragon’s Gate’ and Sarcoccoa hookeriana var digyna ‘Purple Stem’ AGM are also worth seeking out.
Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’ AGM: Algerian iris
Breaking all the rules, this Mediterranean beauty produces improbably large, diaphanous flowers in the depths of winter. For most of the year Iris unguicularis is little more than a clump of coarse leaves. Just before Christmas a minor miracle happens: hyacinth-blue flowers start to appear deep in the crown of the plant. These open to reveal tender flowers feathered with white and splashed with yellow. If picked for a posy their sweet fragrance can be properly appreciated. The variety ‘Mary Barnard’ has darker, more purplish flowers than the species.
Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ AGM: winter honeysuckle
When I was at Reading University I would regularly pass the naked, arching form of Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ en route to post-Christmas lectures, breathing in the sparkling scent of its tiny white flowers. Insignificant through spring, summer and autumn, this woody honeysuckle is a powerhouse of perfume from December to February.
Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ AGM: wintersweet
Many winter and spring-flowering plants produce yellow flowers to attract bees. The bees themselves see yellow as blue – how do we know that? Your guess is as good as mine! Whatever you see when you gaze at Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ it’s sure to cheer you up. This shrub requires a modicum of patience to get established and a sheltered spot to enjoy the best of its scent. Makes an excellent cut flower in winter arrangements.
Camellia sasanqua ‘Kanjiro’: Christmas camellia
Sasanqua camellias are native to the evergreen coastal forests of southern Japan. The Japanese use the leaves of Camellia sasanqua to make tea, and the seeds are pressed into tea seed oil for use as a lubricant and in cooking and cosmetics. The variety ‘Kanjiro’ originated in Japan in 1954 and bears cerise-pink semi-double blooms with golden stamens and a delicate fragrance. Shallow rooted, sasanqua camellias should not be planted too deeply and need to be kept moist with a good leafy mulch. Given the conditions they demand, they will reward with hundreds, if not thousands, of small, elegant flowers. Single white ‘Narumigata’ is another lovely choice.
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’: Nepalese paper plant
When we visited Nepal and Bhutan in 2013 we found we were never more than a few feet away from Daphne bholua. ‘Jacqueline Postil’ is a good all-round daphne, and hardier than many other varieties. Richly scented flowers open from deep pink buds in January and continue for weeks. D. bholua ‘Peter Smithers’ was collected on the Daman Ridge in Nepal and has bigger, purplish-pink flowers. Needs moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil.
Narcissus tazetta ‘Paperwhite Ziva’: paperwhites
Tazetta narcissi are not reliably hardy in most UK gardens. This should not put you off: they make excellent house plants and anyone can grow them. Buy and plant your bulbs in deep pots 6 weeks before you want them to flower, water and place somewhere bright. Tah dah! Behold: a host of ice-white flowers broadcasting intoxicating scent. Get hold of the largest bulbs you can, as each will produce several stems. Planted in succession you can enjoy paperwhites indoors from November until April.
Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ AGM :shrubby scorpion vetch
Glowing like a candle in the dark is a plant that laughs in the face of February, Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’. Despite its unappealing common names, which include scorpion vetch and bastard senna, this compact, winter-flowering shrub was applauded by the great Vita Sackville-West, who praised “its persistence throughout the dreary months”, where she would find it “flowering continuously between those two great feasts of the Church – a sort of hyphen between the Birth and the Resurrection”. From November until May scorpion vetch produces little pom-poms of lemon-yellow, pea-shaped flowers atop greyish-green foliage. An added bonus is the sweet scent, reminiscent of daffodils, a feature which made Coronilla valentina a popular cut flower in Victorian times.
Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ AGM: arrow wood
Viburnum x bodnatense has the posture and countenance of an ageing general: upright and vigorous, yet gnarled. In spring and summer its long stems wear a uniform of camouflage green, before letting rip with a blaze of yellow and orange foliage in autumn. Almost as soon as the leaves have fallen, tight bundles of tiny pink flowers begin to emerge from the bare stems, filling the air with scent. It’s a common shrub, but for a very good reason: it’s easy to grow in sun or shade and will tolerate inept pruning. To avoid the flowers being damaged by frost, it’s best to position Viburnum x bodnantense somewhere sheltered, and where it can be viewed from the house.
Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ AGM: Witch Hazel
Hybridisation has blessed gardeners with countless shrubby witch hazels to choose from. Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is a nice compact variety with dense, sulphur-yellow flowers that exude a characteristic spicy scent. Witch hazels are quite particular. They prefer acid soil, although they can manage on a neutral one provided the soil does not get too dry in summer. They are best in a sunny position and do not like to be too wet in winter. If you can provide all that, then you are a luckier gardener than I am! ‘Pallida’ bears primrose yellow flowers and ‘Diane’ is red. ‘Orange Peel’ not only has orange flowers but smells of marmalade – delicious!