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Making perfect scents this winter

I helped a friend out last week. He works fulltime and has a young family, and the succession of wet weekends we have been experiencing meant his lawns had got a little out of hand. He’d done me a favour recently , so I decided to reciprocate by trimming his lawns a little.

It turned out there was a payback for me. His neighbours have a large wintersweet growing on their boundary, with many branches pushing out over his lawn. I “had to” remove some of the ends of the branches to mow properly, and decided I would bring them home for our kitchen table – the Head Gardener loves this plant.

Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, is one of the many winter flowering shrubs that make up for their lack of coloured flowers by having an abundance of sweet fragrance. Hailing from China, it is a deciduous plant, growing to maybe five metres in perfect conditions, but more usually less than half that. It has plain green leaves throughout the summer, the majority of which fall before the flowering starts in mid-winter.

The flowers are quite inconspicuous. They are about the size of your smallest fingernail, very pale yellow and quite waxy. The inside of the flowers usually have a touch of maroon, although there are some pure yellow forms.

The scent is the thing with this shrub, as it is quite an untidy growing plant, best suited to growing in the background. The fragrance is said by some to be the most beautiful of any plant – I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but it is entrancing, with a sweet citrus scent, perhaps with overtones of roses thrown in.

We have had no luck growing this plant, which is odd because it is relatively easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil. It prefers full sun [it will flower better then] but can cope with light shade, and probably needs extra water over the summer while it is getting established.

As I walked to town the other day, my nose found another winter flowering treat – a plant of the shrubby honeysuckle known as Lonicera fragrantissima. This has as delicious a scent as the wild weed, Japanese honeysuckle, but unlike its cousin, it is not inclined to try and take over whichever garden it is growing in.

I was thinking about the plant as I continued my walk, thinking that the garden I grew up in had three different honeysuckles.

Along the back fence that separated out garden from the paddock behind the section, the Japanese honeysuckle grew in profusion. Not realising at the time that it was such a weed, I used to like its lovely fragrance.

At the other end of the section, we had a hedge of the box honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida separating us from the footpath. This is a shrubby plant, quite unlike any other honeysuckle I have ever seen and is widely used as a hedge or for topiary. The leaves are small – less than half the size of true box – and the plant is very hardy. It also grows more quickly than true box, and probably needs a little more clipping.

It does flower, but the flowers are so insignificant that most people who grow the plant will not ever have noticed the slightly fragrant blooms.

The third honeysuckle growing in our garden was the one I noticed on my walk, the shrubby L. fragrantissima. To be honest, this is a very plain-looking shrub for most of the year, with plain green leaves and a slightly untidy way of growing. When young, it almost grows like a climber, but soon settles down to making very woody growth.

One Australian garden writer does not like the way it grows, saying it “is a rubbish shrub…a bulky, unwieldy thing with a branching structure that takes angularity to a degree of ugliness you’d not previously imagined possible.”

But then he says: “The only possible reason you’d want it is for its truly heavenly-scented small white flowers throughout the winter.”

I agree. The plainness it demonstrates in the warmer months will soon be forgotten in winter when its small white flowers start to appear among the evergreen leaves. Again, the flowers are not very large, not particularly glamorous, but the sweet lemony fragrance will stop you in your tracks.

We have another newer favourite winter flowering sweetly scented shrub – the daphne called ‘Perfume Princess’.

Another wonderful creation by Mark Jury of Tikorangi near Waitara, this combines D. bholua with the more common D. odora and flowers for us a month or more before the latter opens its first blooms. It is not quite so strongly scented as D. odora, but it is still great to pick a bunch of it for the house. Ours is growing well in semi-shade in low pH soil and is very healthy with glossy dark green leaves.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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