The sweet scents of winter

Monday, 06 July 2009

Viola odorata - the sweet violet

One of the joys of winter is inhaling the scents of some of the most fragrant flowers in the plant world. Why there are a number of these in winter is a mystery, though one theory is that the flowers need to use fragrance to attract the fewer insect pollinators that are around in the cooler months. From the gardener's point of view, these sweet perfumes lure us outside, which is sometimes enough incentive to stay out there and do some gardening on a cold day!

Daphne odora f. alba

One of the most delicious aromas in my garden at the moment is from the Chinese shrub Daphne odora (ht 1m), which opens its exquisite posies of waxy pale pink or pure white flowers all along its evergreen stems in July. Its fragrance is one of the most intense of all flowering plants, and can fill the air for metres around, redolent of the most expensive Parisian lemon soap or perhaps a rich, sweet citrus dessert. Renowned for dropping dead without warning, good drainage is essential for this shrub's longevity. The entry for Daphne in my plant reference gives some tips for growing them. Picking short sprays of flowers for indoor decoration will help keep it looking tidy and is all the pruning it needs. My white form (Daphne odora f. alba) is pretty in a shady spot with snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) and white hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus).

I didn't know until recent years that some winter-blooming Camellia are scented. A few of these are the miniature-flowered types, which in comparison to Camellia japonica, have smaller leaves and more open growth, with elegant arching stems holding little blooms which almost have the appearance of fruit blossoms. Some perfumed examples of these are C. lutchuensis (white single flowers), C. 'Fragrant Pink' (deep pink informal double) and C. tsaii (fragrant white flowers with a pink touch on the outer petals). Other hybrid Camellia with large flowers also have a light fragrance, including 'High Fragrance' (double pale pink with deeper pink edges) and 'Superscent' (informal double white and pale pink flowers).

Acacia podalyriifolia

Native wattles offer their clear yellow, downy, fragrant blooms from the very start of winter, with the Queensland wattle (Acacia podalyriifolia, ht 4-6m) being one of the first to open in June, with flowers that remind me of baby chickens, followed by the feathery-leafed Cootamundra wattle in July (Acacia baileyana, ht 6m). These wattles in full bloom are a brilliant sight against a perfect blue winter sky.

There are some winter-flowering Buddleja that do well in our climate. The slim white spires of Buddleja 'Spring Promise' open in July, and they are scented with a fusion of jasmine and freesias. It is a bit of an ungainly, straggly shrub out of flowering season, and needs a position where it can melt into background for the rest of the year. It needs hard pruning after flowering, and also several times through summer to keep it reasonably compact. Buddleja salviifolia is a denser shrub with attractively textured grey-green leaves and honey-scented lilac trusses of bloom. These shrubs do best in full sun.

Another straggling shrub with heavenly scented winter flowers is Luculia gratissima, which bears large, showy bouquets of sugary pink flowers in June and July. This drama queen can be very temperamental, requiring a wind- and frost-free position with morning sun, rich soil, perfect drainage but adequate moisture - even then it may die suddenly for no apparent reason! It also resents root disturbance. It represents a challenge to keen gardeners with the right garden position for it. Alternatively, simply admire it in other people's gardens!

Narcissus Erlicheer

Where limited space does not permit growing any of these shrubs, another source of winter perfume is the jonquil (Narcissus, Tazetta daffodils division, ht 30-40cm), particularly the classic 'Soleil d'Or' with its cheerful yellow and orange faces, and the double-flowered, creamy-coloured 'Erlicheer'. The old-fashioned 'paper white' jonquil is a wild species, called Narcissus papyraceus. Jonquils have a haunting, almost overwhelming fragrance and are good performers in Sydney's climate, more so in many areas than the rather unpredictable larger-flowered daffodils.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata, ht 8cm, pictured at the start of the blog) have also started flowering in my garden amidst a verdant groundcover of heart-shaped leaves. The jaunty, perfumed little flowers first appear in winter and continue into early spring, and though there are many cultivars of varying colours - which can be used to create a pretty tapestry effect - the original purple- and white-flowered forms are the most reliable bloomers. Flowering is best where plants receive some winter sun, so underneath deciduous shrubs or trees can be an ideal position. I have even grown mine in quite a hot, exposed position. Dividing and replanting the violets into refreshed soil every few years also promotes better blooming and some very keen gardeners remove the leaves in autumn to get more flowers.

Enjoy the scents of winter!