A winter wander inspires Rosemary Verey to consider her favourite plants for that all-important colour and fragrance to brighten up cold, frosty days
Why not plan a winter walk around your garden so that at every turn or pausing place there will be a scent to greet you. Remember that some flowers hold fast to their scent and you must almost bury your nose in them to discover their fragrance. Others are more outgoing and will astonish you as they waft their perfume for several yards towards you.
My suggestion is that you make a list of the winter-flowering scented shrubs that will grow well in your soil, those you know you must have, then add some unusual ones that will surprise you and your visitors. Start planning by your front door, which may be on the shady side of your house. Plant a Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna on each side. They are low-growing evergreens and their small white flowers almost hide themselves under the slender alternate pointed leaves. It is their fragrance that catches your attention, flowering from Christmas until March. They will add architectural interest used each side of the steps or on the corner of a border.
East walls can be difficult because the early sun on a frosty morning can damage precocious flowers. Think of the viburnums, their scent rivalling that of any daphnes. Viburnum x bodnantense 'Deben', raised by Notcutt’s nurseries, flowers before shedding its leaves. It is vigorous and hardy, with masses of frost-resistant flowers between late autumn and winter. V. farreri (fragrans) a 9-12 ft shrub has pink buds opening to reveal white flowers with an almond scent.
South and south-east facing walls are easier to cover. The ivory white wintersweet Chimonanthus praecox and the yellow C. p. ‘Grandiflorus’ are outstanding as winter-flowering shrubs. The rounded buds open to reveal starry yellow flowers with central rings of shorter purple petals. Richly scented, a few sprigs will fill a room with their presence.
An evergreen winter-flowering clematis for any wall (except north) is Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica. Reaching 6 metres (20 feet), it must have support. A good place is on your house by a door, then you can watch it carefully as the small creamy-white scented bells decide to open in January. Never be tempted to prune back the long bare arms, which may get in your way and look untidy. The flower buds will develop and open on these. Prune it after it has given you its full display of flowers.
Daphnes are accommodating and will fit into a space in your border, but they are not long-lived. Nurture any seedlings you find around the parent plant of Daphne mezereum. One of my less usual treasures is D. laureola, the spurge laurel, with yellow-green tubular blooms in February and March. They seed in unexpected places and must be kept for the benefit of winter moths, which come to pollinate them as the light fades.
I have chosen three less-known shrubs. Oemleria cerasiformis (Osmaronia c.) flowers in February and March when racemes of fragrant white flowers, with green calyces and a distinctive almond scent. We have it beside the temple where we sit in winter and it perfumes the air and the gardener has to be persuaded that it is not the scent of the azara growing nearby. I recommend it for every garden, planted where the midday sun will catch it and bring out its strong scent. Two azaras, A. integrifolia and A. petiolaris are reliable winter flowerers, both with yellow blooms. They can be grown freestanding or against a wall. They are easily recognized by their leaves: one very small leaf nestles between the shrub’s stem and the axil of the main leaf.
I wonder if some plants fail to become popular because of their tongue twisting names. Could Abeliophyllum distichum be one of these? It came from Korea in 1924 where it is known as white forsythia. The best place for it in your garden is in front of a south-facing wall. The honey-scented flowers open as the crocuses do so will entice the bees from their pollen gathering.
If you decide to be even more adventuresome and are prepared to give some winter protection, then here are a few names. Acacia dealbata, the mimosa you will get in a florist’s winter bunch. William Frederick, the garden architect from Pennsylvania, says every garden should have Magnolia denudata (syn. heptapetala)*p>. Plant several mahonias in different aspects, M. lomariifolia and M. x media varieties raised by Lionel Fortescue. Arbutus x andrachnoides and Buddleja auriculata are doubtfully hardy, the latter should brought into a greenhouse as frost sets in. Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’ a form of the common thorn is the Glastonbury thorn legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea thrust his hawthorn staff into the ground, where it immediately grew and flowers on Christmas day.
See also the following plant profiles: