Winter scent is unexpected. It ensnares the senses, snatching us from grey reality and delivering a fragrant reverie. The flowers that produce these captivating scents can be insignificant and with winter pollinators few, their fragrance has to be intense and carry further to attract the few active, available insects.
Sarcoccoca confusa, beguiles with its sweet, heady scent, startling passers by. It is a relaxed, small, evergreen shrub with narrow, pointed, waxy, dark green leaves. The delicate, filigree, clusters of creamy white flowers with yellow tips seem to hide along the stems below the leaves, barely visible, but with a startlingly powerful aroma.
Daphe bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ has more showy blossoms. It is an upright, evergreen shrub with waxy, oval, mid green leaves and clusters of flowering heads. The buds are a pinkish, purple, opening to the palest pink and holding small, yellow tipped stamens within a tubular sheath of petals. It smells of roses, rewarding time spent in the garden by evoking summer in January. These shrubs, ‘sweet box’ and ’Nepalese paper plant’, are found in woodland clearings and dappled shade in the temperate forests of the eastern Himalayas.
On warmer days, there can be a surprising number of flying insects. Stick your nose into a winter flowering shrub, and you may disturb an absorbed bee. The scent emanating from these plants is a mix of volatile compounds diffused into the air, a biological mechanism to attract pollinators to fertilize a particular flower. Winter scented shrubs encourage bumblebees and hoverflies to remain active in the cold. Fewer pollinators mean there is a feast for those who brave the wintry weather.
Many of the sweetly scented winter shrubs found in our gardens are natives of China. Lornicera x purpursii, winter honeysuckle, is a straggly, twiggy shrub. The white flowers appear before the blue green oval leaves, with pale yellow stamens twisting below small twirling white petals. For the rest of the year the shrub is rather ungainly but it is a magnet for hungry, winter flying pollinators.
Chimonanthus praecox, winter sweet, blooms on naked stems. Delicate lemon yellow, translucent petals hang like tiny lanterns from the branches before the apple green leaves emerge. It flowers at Chinese New Year when sprigs are used for hair ornaments. Like lavender, it is used to perfume linen cupboards with its freesia like fragrance. It grows in cliffs and gorges in the Ichang province and in dappled shade in the mountain forests.
Hamamellis x intermedia is a Chinese, Japanese native Hamamellis cross. Hamamellis or Chinese witchhazel is a slow growing, small, deciduous tree, preferring semi shade, with leaves, similar to our native Hazel, that emerge after flowering. The showy blooms of Hamamellis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ have a fresh lemony scent while Hamamellis x intermedia ‘Harry’ gives off a hint of spice. The flowers appear like tiny fireworks with spidery petals ranging from pale yellow to deep burnt orange around a tiny, deep purple red centre.
Smell is the sense that can most strongly trigger memory. This is the strength of scented winter shrubs. They have the power to transport, to lift the spirits and to delight. Planted near an entrance or along a well-used path, where the scent will be appreciated, they bring simple pleasure.