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Best plants for scent in winter

Between minus double-digits and torrential rain it’s been hard to catch those first scents of our New Year gardens so far in 2023. But on our Zoom call this week we laughed about this post on winter scent from a few years back and wondered if you would too…

Laura

I can’t believe my sisters sometimes….! When I proposed our next post should be about winter scented shrubs there was palpable apathy from the pair of them: ‘nothing much smelling in my garden at the moment’, honestly – what lightweights!

They are both missing out on one of the highlights of the gardening year. I love perambulating my garden in February, hands clasping a hot drink, visiting each of my winter beauties in turn and soaking up their delicious fragrance.

My first port of call is always the tall gangly rosemary ’Miss Jessop’s Upright’ by the front door. Lovely all year round, running my hand up its stems to release that wonderful spicy scent is especially welcome in winter and I popped a sprig of it into our Christmas shop orders this year (by the way a big thank you to everyone who supports our online shop – its modest profits help defray the costs of running our blog).

Christmas gifts
A sprig of rosemary just lifts one’s spirits

My next winter stars are honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ which frames our garden gate and greets all visitors with a hefty waft of perfume; Hamamelis ‘Aphrodite’ (see our feature picture above) which is just starting to radiate a scent very reminiscent of freesia; and a beefy clump of Christmas box Sarcococca confusa by my back door.

Sarcococca confusa – a cheerful and fragrant winter companion

These winter flowering shrubs have some characteristics in common, they tend to have fairly insignificant pale coloured flowers, but intense scent that is thrown much more widely around the garden than that of many summer flowering shrubs, and seems to intensify in the early evening – my theory is that they are pitching for the crepuscular (wouldn’t Miranda Hart love that word) insect life such as wintermoths so I planned a torchlight foray to test this prediction.

Moth hunting
My investigation by head torch (not weird at all) proved I was right! The sarcococca was alive with wintermoths and other crepuscular insect life, and also smelled divine.

The secret of positioning winter flowering shrubs is to dot them around next to your accustomed route ways so you can’t help but pass them, even on the coldest day, such as the path to the front door or to the garage, or in Caroline’s case to the glass bottle recycling bin.


Caroline

They’re all Perrier bottles I assure you but if the odd Gordon’s bottle is included I feel there’s good cause –  could Laura have actually chosen a more difficult topic than winter scent? A question I asked Betsy who was on reception at the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh where I went at the weekend for inspiration. A trip well worth it for meeting Betsy alone.  Painstakingly we went through the database for any likely candidate. The hotly-tipped fragrance of Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ was an emotional rollercoaster – they had two, but they’d died (how well I know that scenario), but we soon had an exciting map full of potential treasures.

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’

Unfortunately the honey scent of Galanthus (snowdrop to you and me) ‘Magnet’ remains a mystery despite me making so many trips around its rumoured location by the pond even the moorhens looked frustrated.

However Viburnum bodnantense  ‘Charles Lamont’ did not disappoint and had my phone’s battery not caved in to the cold, I know I would have bettered Laura’s snap of the sweetly smelling Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’.

We asked in our last blog what others dream about and reader Jane Lloyd mentioned the smell of jasmine. As well as being the ancient smell of calm, jasmine is also supposed to be an aphrodisiac. I hasten to add this was not cited by Jane as the reason she dreams of it, but it reminds me that my favourite smell is fast approaching….crown imperials when they start pushing through the soil – earthy, primeval and reeking of fertility – it’s what happens when Jo Malone goes bad.


Elaine

Golly I think Caroline’s been watching too many Game of Thrones box sets but I do agree with her, I swear Laura often dreams up topics for the express purpose of exposing our ignorance.  This time she clearly intended to send both of us out into the elements frantically sniffing things like a lovesick poodle, in a hopeless attempt to find something to equal her findings.  And of course, that’s exactly what I have just done. I was pleased to find the Daphne bholua 

Daphne bholua Treat yourself to some glorious scent in your winter garden.

with its branches festooned in pink and white frosting, pumping out her expensive scent among the drab winter twigs like a pantomime duchess at a Parish Council Meeting.  Apparently, this winter-scent malarkey is all to do with there being fewer pollinators around, so you need to pile on the Givenchy if you want the fairly sparse bug-traffic to notice you.

Iris unguicularis – great colour in winter

What else? The Iris unguicularis is covered in fresh earthy-smelling sky-blue flowers. I don’t know what variety mine is – it possibly doesn’t have one; apparently, the silvery-lilac ‘Walter Butt’ is the best one for scent. These winter irises are exquisite to pick (remember to cut low down well below their long papery buds) and pop into a squat little bowl indoors where you can truly appreciate their fleeting beauty.

Vase of winter scented shrubs

The bells on Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica were citrusy, the Sarcococca by the front door was spicy, but really that was entirely enough sniffing for one February day.  It was time to snip off some stems of these dainties to join the irises in their little jug, and let their perfume intensify in the warm room while I settled down to a crossword and a glass of Chilean red.

What are your thoughts? Have we missed one of your favourite winter scents? We’d love to know…

Many of the plants mentioned here also appear in our ’75 best plants for autumn and winter ’ list.

In the meantime Louise has chosen a stunning grass that livens up her daily garden walk as her Great Plant this Month, click on the box below to find out what it is.

NB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

15 replies on “Best plants for scent in winter”

And Sue the nicest thing for us is being involved with other people who garden, so thank you so much for sending a comment. The lovely personalities it attracts is one of the best things about this hobby! Wishing you a super weekend, Caroline

Daphne Odora lives just outside the gumboot door in a lovely sheltered spot and exudes a unique and delicious scent impossible to pass by without lifting a January spirit.

That’s the perfect place for Daphne to live Jane, just where you can’t help passing her by whenever you put your gumboots on! Best wishes Laura

Daphne is my top winter flowering shrub! I have 3 in my east-facing front garden and on a sunny day you can smell them all the way down the road – intoxicating! I also have one in the back garden, wouldn’t be without them. Incidentally, the pesky snails have chewed all the leaves off the back of one of them but it’s still flowering happily:)

Yes they are hard to beat for the strength and depth of their scent, they used to have a clump of three, like yours, at Wisley and you could smell them long before you could see them. Those snails of yours are quite intrepid, taking on a shrub like that! Best wishes Laura

So glad that everyone is coming forward with their favourites after E and C were making out that I was the weird one for appreciating winter scented shrubs! Coronilla is a great little shrub, but I never seem to be able to keep it happy for more than a year or two before it starts to sulk, perhaps it doesn’t like my acid soil….sounds like yours is very happy though Angela. Best wishes Laura

What about sarcocca (spelling!)? I have two – one in full sun, the other in dappled shade and both thriving and sweetly scenting the air. However I do agree Daphne is the best… Greatly enjoy the3growbags – thanks ladies. Janie

I’ve just read your blog and gone out into my garden (still dark) and found that my Hammemilis ‘Arnold’s Promise’ has ‘opened’ to reveal its wonderful threads. It brings joy every year as my eldest girl (Hazel) especially looks forward to seeing it, and smelling the scent on her birthday on the 18th. I’m now looking forward to the clump of ever spreading Anemone Blanda (wife’s favourite) which got planted underneath the branches 10 yrs ago.

So many joys to look forward to at this time of year; the best was when I wondered why I only 2 clumps of snow drops, I was blaming squirrels, youngest daughter, in fact anyone really and then found I’d spread them underneath my White Mulberry (Morus Alba). 🫣 how embarrassing 😊

Oh Michael, your message rang such bells with me! Elaine here. I have lost count of the number of times I decided to move plants around in my garden, and then forgotten to make a proper note of it. It does make a stroll round the garden the following year much more exciting! Your garden sounds absolutely delightful – I’m with your wife about Anemone Blanda – a sheet of them bobbing about in a spring breeze is one of the glories of the season. We 3Growbags hope you have a wonderful 2023 in your garden, thank you for writing in.

This time last year you suggested it might be a good idea to keep regular garden notes or perhaps even a diary. Whatever, I took your advice and am so enjoying referring back to last year to see what was what and when I ordered seeds various and comments on successes and failures. I kept it going for the year and am off again 2023. I couldn’t recommend it more highly – thank you Gro-Bags.

Jane, this is MUSIC to my ears! It’s Elaine here, and I’ve been telling my sisters for years that they must develop the note-taking/diary habit in their gardens. I’ve got lots and lots of gardening books, but the ones I look at most are my shelf-full of notebooks (many quite tatty now!). So much history of my gardening ‘journey’ (sorry, very over-used word) scribbled there, so many memories of the myriad things I got wrong and the occasional triumph. Keep it up, you won’t regret it. Have a great 2023 gardening year.

We have a show and tell table at every gardening club meeting and the fragrance from the sarcococca, winter honeysuckle and viburnum brought in from the gardens of our members filled the hall. Better that any room spray!

Linda how lucky are you to have a local gardening club and what a great idea to have an opportunity for people to bring something of interest in every week. It’s Caroline here and I often think gardening programmes (and Chelsea coverage) don’t feature enough from gardening clubs. These absolute funds of knowledge + terrific fun = Great TV surely! Yes there is a purity about plant scents at this time of the year isn’t there – just wonderful. Wishing you a fantastic gardening year ahead, XX

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