"The sweet scents of winter"

Fragrant winter-flowering plants can get us out into the garden in July!
Sunday, 12 July 2020     

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, bleak day!

One of the most delicious aromas in my garden at the moment is from the Chinese shrub Daphne odora (ht 1 m), 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. 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), as well as a small-leaved silvery Syngonium that winds around the shrub.

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 - but they are still substantial shrubs, growing to a height of around 3-4 m. Some examples are C. lutchuensis (white single flowers), C. 'Fragrant Pink' (deep pink informal double) and C. tsaii (white flowers with a pink touch on the outer petals). Other hybrid Camellia with large flowers also have a light perfume, including 'High Fragrance' (double pale pink with deeper pink edges) and 'Superscent' (informal double white and pale pink flowers).

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. Another yellow-flowered, winter-blooming shrub is Mahonia lomariifolia (ht 2-3 m) from China, which has long, upright flowering spires of tiny, clustered bells, with a soft scent.

There are some winter-flowering Buddleja that do well in our climate. The slim white spires of Buddleja 'Spring Promise' (ht 3 m) 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, otherwise it takes up too much space. Buddleja salviifolia (ht 3 m) is a denser shrub with attractively textured grey-green leaves and honey-scented lilac trusses of bloom that appear later on in winter, but it too needs severe pruning after flowering and needs plenty of room. 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, as I do!

Where limited space does not permit growing any of these shrubs, another source of winter perfume is the jonquil (Narcissus, Tazetta daffodils division, ht 30-40 cm), 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. Another winter-blooming bulb with perfumed flowers is Tulbaghia simmleri (ht 45 to 60 cm), which is a relative of the society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) but with larger flowers of white or lilac, which have a light clove scent. It is a useful bulb for shaded areas.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata, ht 8 cm, 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! Let me know others that you have in your garden.

Blog first posted on 6 July 2009; updated 12 July 2020.

 Reader Comments

1/8  Ian - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 07 July 2009

Hi! My garden is absolutely full of violets which I use as a summer ground cover and started as just one punnet from the nursery. Ian

Thanks, Ian. I guess I should have mentioned just how enthusiastic the violets can be! Deirdre

2/8  Alida - 4566 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Wednesday, 08 July 2009

Deirdre, I have just walked under my arch which is covered in the Poets Jasmine (Jasminum officinale Grandiflorum). It seems to have flowers for most of the year and I never tire of the heavenly scent.

Thanks, Alida. I don't have that one but I do have Jasminum nitidum and it is still in bloom too. I think the jasmines are great in our climate. Deirdre

3/8  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 09 July 2009

Enjoyed your blog, would be nice to have the perfumes wafting as well:-) I am enjoying C.High Fragrance which opened today and also C.Cinnamon Cindy, a miniature bought moons ago from Rast Bros.-a very prolific flowerer and lovely perfume. Cheers Sue.

Thanks, Sue. Glad you are enjoying those fragrant camellias. Deirdre

4/8  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 13 July 2020

So many fragrant winter flowers which make it a joy to wander around the garden. I have a number of violets, jonquils and a wonderful honeysuckle fragrantissima, which is now in full flower, with a perfume similar to citrus. I lost my daphne, late last year, and am yet to purchase another. I believe the Amazon lily, currently in bloom, has a perfume, but have yet to detect it. Am now waiting for the freesias to flower. Thanks, Margaret. Funnily enough, I came across one of those honeysuckles that you mentioned, on my walk this morning. It has a lovely aroma. And I love the freesias when they appear, round August. Deirdre

5/8  Robyn - 2325 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 13 July 2020

I love honeysuckle but find it very difficult to find in a nursery- I am in the Hunter. I grew up with it in our lovely country garden at Narrabri. Yes it is hard to get those old-fashioned things these days. Maybe someone can give you a cuttings some day! Deirdre

6/8  Laurel - 4179 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 13 July 2020

I have a Fragrant Pink Camellia in my garden that has been flowering for at least 20 years and it never fails to amaze me with its beautiful clover scented flowers. I do nothing to maintain it except a bit of water when it is really dry. It is a neat shape and size without any pruning. My second favourite Camellia is Dream Girl, the perfume is not quite as strong as Fragrant Pink but the large petals are delicate and fanciful in colour and shape. Cheers Laurel Thanks, Laurel. I didn't know that camellias would do so well in Queensland! Deirdre

7/8  Julie - 2097 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 13 July 2020

My Sweet Woodbine -Lonicera fragrantissima- is flowering in my front garden in Collaroy- heavenly scent. I have neglected the bush for ages and it has become craggy. Note to self for next weekend: clear its base and encourage new shoots for next year. Regards Julie It's great to know that this shrub does well in Sydney. The one I saw on my walk yesterday was quite old and straggly but covered in blooms! Deirdre

8/8  Priya - 2126 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Would you know where I could find the small, fragrant camellias? I bought High Fragrance from the Collectors Fair a couple of months ago but would love at least a couple of these others youve spoken about Try one of the camellia nurseries in Sydney - Camellias R Us or Camellia Grove - you could check their websites to see what they have. Deirdre

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