Heaven scent in winter: plants with sweet perfume

Crocus Sieberi in bloom
Crocus Sieberi in bloom
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There may be few reasons to venture into the garden at this time of year, but scent is one of them.

The rich, heady perfume of certain winter-flowering shrubs can blow away the cobwebs and brush off the worst of the winter blues.

Just inhaling the delicious fragrance of shrubs like mahonia, Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) and Viburnum x bodnantense as you view the garden should shake off any reluctance you might have harboured about venturing outdoors in the first place.

Add to that the bare-branched stems and light yellow, beautifully-perfumed flowers of wintersweet, the sulphur yellow flowers along the bare spreading branches of witch hazel and the strong-scented clusters of white flowers which appear on shrubby honeysuckle in winter, and your olfactory senses should be in their element.

Of course, you don’t want one perfume to overshadow another, and indeed, scented shrubs require a variety of conditions and space, but here’s a few of the best that will provide scent, colour and form:

Shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera x purpusii):

Not a bit like a regular honeysuckle, but a close cousin nevertheless, this neat rounded bush grows to 2m x 2m and is covered in winter with clusters of strongly scented, white flowers. Grow it in any good garden soil in sun or light shade.

Trim the flowered stems back to a sideshoot each year once the flowers are over to keep a good shape.

Mahonia x media 
‘Charity’:

This upright plant, which grows 2m high and 1m wide, has tooth-edged, leathery evergreen leaves and spikes of brilliant yellow scented flowers that smell a bit like lily of the valley in winter. It should be planted in light shade with a little shelter, so is ideally placed with others in a large border.

Cut off some of the branches bearing flowers for indoor decorations, and if the shrub becomes leggy, cut it back hard after flowering.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’):

Significant spidery-shaped sulphur-yellow flowers appear along its spreading branches and can be in flower from autumn through to spring in a sheltered spot, or in a mild winter. The golden colour of the leaves in autumn is also worth noting. Another good one is H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, which produces wonderfully scented yellow flowers.

Witch hazels are great for urban gardens as their leafless branches in winter cast no shade and they are also pretty compact.

Wintersweet 
(sarcococca confusa):

These tough evergreen shrubs are invaluable in the garden in winter, their dense forms covered in glossy, dark green leaves, bearing clusters of white flowers followed by round, glossy berries.

But their best asset is their scent, a sweet, powerful fragrance which carries a surprising distance, even on the coldest day.

If you want scent indoors, just cut a few stems and they will fill a room with rich fragrance. Grow them with other winter-flowering plants such as Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and Helleborus niger, or as an informal hedge.

Daphne bholua:

The pretty pinky-purple and white flowers on this medium-sized evergreen shrub pack a perfumed punch and brighten up any shady border in winter. It’s compact by nature, but will reach a maximum height of 2.5m and spread 1.5m in 10 years if you plant it in fertile, humus-rich soil that won’t dry out too much in summer.

Of course, there are also smaller plants that will give you fragrance in winter, such as the pint-sized Crocus sieberi ‘Bowles’s White’, with its pure white flowers and gold throats, or the snowdrop, Galanthus magnet, and the Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’, a member of the onion family that grows to just 18cm, its white scented star-shaped flowers facing the sky. Grow them near the patio door to enjoy the best of the fragrance.