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.
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