Eden horticulturist Shirley Walker describes how small winter flowers can produce incredible aromas at this otherwise quiet time of year in your garden.
A winter garden can be a magical tapestry of dramatic, evergreen foliage; bright, shiny berries; golden grasses and colourful stems, but for me, on a crisp, clear winter day, it is the heady fragrance of winter flowers that surprises and intoxicates the senses.
Winter flowering plants are among the most highly scented of all garden plants and although they originate in many different parts of the world, they seem to be trying to outdo one another in the perfume stakes in order to attract pollinators. Winter fragrant flowers can sometimes appear small and insignificant but they have evolved in this way to lure the few pollinating insects around in winter with scent. What they lack in size they more than make up for in fragrance!
Aromatherapists believe essential oils lift our spirits and retrieve long forgotten memories and who am I to disagree? Whatever kind of scent appeals to you there will be many plants to choose from for your winter garden and no matter how small your patch, make room somewhere for at least one of these fragrant winter gems – you will not be disappointed.
Tips on growing fragrant winter flowers
You will derive most pleasure from your winter fragrant plants when you plant them by paths and walkways or by entrances and doorways in regular winter use. What could be more pleasurable than to be welcomed by a waft of sweetly scented cool air every time you open the door?
One of my all-time favourites is wintersweet, Chimomanthus praecox, with its delicious yet sophisticated spicy smell, stronger in the species than in cultivars. Cut a few twigs and bring them indoors – the tiny yellow flowers with inner maroon streaks are waxy with essential oils and the fragrance will fill the whole room!
Nepalese paper plant
The increasing power of the sun in the New Year triggers many winter shrubs into bloom. One of my favourites is the Nepalese paper plant, Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, a medium- sized, ever-green shrub bearing clusters of highly fragrant, purplish-pink and white flowers in late winter. These are followed by attractive black berries.
A favourite with the outdoor gardening team here is Lonicera fragrantissima, the winter-flowering honeysuckle or ‘sweetest honeysuckle’. Pairs of sweet honey-scented, creamy flowers bloom from winter into spring, often followed by red berries.
Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’
This plant has a perfume reminiscent of cloves, jonquils and heliotrope. If you bring this one indoors it can smell a little sickly, but in the garden on a calm, sunny day it smells heavenly. Look closely and you will see tight clusters of rosy-pink flowers that fade to white as they age.
Here in the outdoor gardens of the Eden Project, the leafless branches of witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ are adorned with spidery, coppery-orange flowers that fill the air with a delicate perfume. This is considered to be one of the best cultivars around today and has the added bonus of spectacular red and gold autumn colour.
The only drawback to some of these wonderful plants is that they can look drab during the rest of year. The answer could be to plant them in containers so you can move them in and out of the limelight. However, one of the most dramatic exceptions to this is Mahonia, which looks great all year round. As autumn turns to winter, Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, throws up clusters of bright yellow flowers with a delicious, old-fashioned scent. The large, spiky, glossy leaves look good all year round and in summer the plant is covered in deep purple berries that you can make into juices and jellies, providing the birds don’t get to them first!