By Charles Kidder
Imagine stepping into your garden and being greeted by delicious fragrance. In winter. In Central Virginia. No, it’s not what we usually associate with our coldest time of the year, but by choosing the right plants, it’s actually a possibility.
Most of us are familiar with cherry trees, perhaps either the native Black Cherries or one of the Asian species known for blooming at the Washington Tidal Basin. Less well-known is their cousin, the Japanese Flowering Apricot, Prunus mume. It’s something of a mystery why these small trees (to a maximum of twenty feet) are not more widely planted, but it could be yet another case of the dreaded Spring Syndrome. Too many gardeners don’t venture out to nurseries until spring, and if a plant’s not in bloom, it’s invisible. By then, the Flowering Apricots are through flowering, having done their thing off-and-on throughout the winter. Depending on the variety as well as the vagaries of the weather, their spicy-sweet flowers can open any time from December through February. One of this plant’s greatest virtues in the winter garden is its staggered bloom sequence. During a mild spell, many of its flowers open, perhaps only to be caught by harsh weather that follows. Not a problem, since the tree holds many dormant buds in reserve, waiting for the next warm spell to repeat the show. There are a couple of dozen Prunus mume varieties available, with flowers ranging from white to pale pink to rosy pink, either single or double. All appreciate full sun, moderate moisture and average soil. Flowering Apricots are what we would call a single-season plant, however; fairly non-descript when not in bloom, they probably don’t merit a place of honor in the middle of your front lawn. Plant them where they can recede into the background when not in bloom.
Another winter bloomer that should not be plunked down in your front lawn is Mahonia, sometimes known as Leatherleaf or Holly-grape. Not that Mahonias aren’t worthy plants for your garden; it’s just that their often somewhat gaunt, leggy appearance won’t cut it standing all by themselves. They look better up against a stone or brick wall, or perhaps backed by a row of more delicate shrubs. Also, they don’t particularly appreciate full sun, especially in winter. The best Mahonia for winter fragrance is M. bealei; unfortunately, it also comes with the caveat of being invasive in the Southeast. Plant it only if you remove the flower heads before they ripen into the berries that birds will spread. (And if you sell your property, dig up the Mahonia and compost it!) A better choice would be Mahonia xmedia, available in several cultivars; ‘Winter Sun’ is one of the more popular. These are less fragrant than M. bealei, but better behaved. They can get up to ten feet tall, and in December and January are topped with sprays of bright yellow flowers.
Sweetbox (Sarcocca spp.) is another plant that’s good for shady places in your garden. An evergreen shrub, Himalayan Sweetbox (S. hookeriana) can reach six feet tall, but it’s more commonly sold as the cultivar humilis, which tops out at about two feet. The small, creamy-white flowers are inconspicuous, except for the powerful fragrance they emit in late winter; ditto for the glossy purple-black fruits, which are noticeable only when you look carefully. Sweetbox creeps by stolons, but never fast enough to be a problem. Sarcocca confusa is reportedly even more fragrant, but only marginally hardy in this area.
Witch hazels are stalwart fall-, winter- and early spring-bloomers. Our native Hamamelis virginiana blooms in late fall, sometimes with the leaves still hanging on the shrub. This can diminish the floral show, but doesn’t affect the sweet fragrance. For fragrance in late winter, the many cultivars of H. xintermedia sport flowers that may be yellow, reddish or coppery. ‘Arnold Promise’ is an old standby with yellow flowers that are particularly fragrant.
Arguably the most fragrant of the winter bloomers is the aptly-named Fragrant Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). The ¾” bell-shaped flowers are attractive, although not terribly showy. The outer petals are a pale, translucent yellow, revealing purplish petals underneath; they’re best shown off with the sun coming from behind. You’re really growing these somewhat ungainly shrubs for their wonderful sweet aroma, but if you insist on something a bit more showy, look for the variety ‘Luteus,’ with brighter yellow flowers. These shrubs can ultimately attain a height of 10’-15’, with slightly less breadth. If they get too big for your taste, they can be whacked back to twelve inches in early spring, following flowering. And don’t confuse this plant with Chionanthus. A very similar name, but a totally different plant.
With all of these plants, flowers and aroma are dependent on weather. Although they can flower in surprisingly cold temperatures, fragrance will be much more noticeable on a mild, sunny day. As long as their basic horticultural requirements can be met, it’s best to plant them near a door or path where you will frequently walk by them and enjoy the fragrance. A little something to brighten up the gloom of winter. And good gardening in 2013!