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Gardens Blog

Scents and sensibility

Viburnum in the frost

I’ve been thinking about scent in the winter garden recently. Sometimes I can be working away, head down, left brain doing one thing and right brain something totally different, and suddenly I catch the faintest thread of sweetness on the cold air and have to stop what I’m doing and search out its source.

It makes me wonder why we don’t design more for fragrance at this time of year when there is so little chance of colour or leaf. After all, on the less awful days we all try to get outside for a while if only to snip back collapsed perennials, sort out the clematis, deal with wisteria and discourage weeds. So we might as well have some sort of reward for our troubles and frozen fingers. When putting together a planting plan for my clients, fragrance is always an important element so that they feel there is something of interest even when the light levels are low and nothing seems to be growing.

Here in our Sussex garden we have the winter flowering honeysuckle, Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’, which produces its pale creamy white flowers reliably and then retreats into its green corner and lets the camellias and roses take over. The perfume is lovely and gentle and just a sprig or two in a little vase can bring the garden indoors. The blossom on the bare-wooded Viburnum x bodnanentse ‘Dawn’ is pink and smells a little more strongly but is still enjoyable.

Another shrub which is good for outdoor fragrance is the wonderfully named Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca Citrina. Its lemon pea-flowers scent the air from November through to March and the bees seem to like it too. However for some reason it only works out of doors because the perfume seems soapy when brought inside.

But you do need to exercise caution: many Witch Hazels carry an astringent scent reminiscent of the First Aid box; and at RHS Wisley last week, down by the large glasshouse, the Winter Flowering Box, Sarcococca, was in full bloom . It looked very good – little white trumpets nestling against glossy dark green foliage; but the scent was overpowering – it was just like being hit hard on the nose. Almost headache-inducing. One bush on its own would be fine but multiples are clearly just too much of a good thing.

So much for shrubs, what about early flowers?

Violets always surprise me with their early appearance, at least in this garden, and we have already spotted some deep purple heads unfurling above the green leaves. These simply refuse to survive inside – they droop sadly and make the picker feel guilty and are best left alone to scent the air with that faintly great-auntish powderiness.

Some snowdrops are fragrant as well but unless they are grown in pots (and not all of them enjoy that environment) you are unlikely to catch a whiff of their honeyed sweetness unless you are (like I often am) practically prone in a border and working gently through the soil to loosen it and edge out unwanted seedlings. Then you get to examine the pale green and white bells in detail and to sniff their strange cool ethereal perfume.

And perhaps the most important thing is to be open to what is out there – an awareness of the possibility of perfume, a willingness to be surprised by joy on a grey afternoon, as welcome as the song of the robin.

Finally the Co-Gardener has just come inside, cold and triumphant, to announce that the first primrose flowers have been seen. Their clean, clear scent announces defiantly that tomorrow is February, that spring will come and that before long there will be so much perfume in the garden that, once again, we won’t know what to sniff first.