The witch hazels, hamamelis clearly enjoyed the wet weather of last summer. The resulting vigorous growth has brought forth a magnificent display of curious narrow-petalled flowers in copper, gold, bright yellow and red. Many have a wonderful spicy fragrance, attractive to the few insects that venture forth to pollinate at this time of the year. On my recent visit to The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens I was particularly taken by a specimen of Hamamelis mollis ‘Iwado’, a variety I had not seen before. The blooms were pure yellow, with sparkling petals and a haunting scent. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ is always a favourite of mine with upright branches and delightful orange petals. I only wish I could bottle that fragrance and revisit it throughout the year.
These beauties for neutral or acid soil still have another season of interest. Although the flowers have faded they will reward later with a glowing display of autumn leaf colour. They were fantastic when I was on my travels in Devon last autumn.
Of all the shrubs renowned for scent the daphnes are the most sought after and cherished. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is the evergreen favourite with shiny pointed leaves with narrow gold margins. The clusters of purple pink flowers start to open in late winter and continue for several weeks in spring. The perfume is rich, sweet and delicious. It does not grow well in a pot, but is at home on most soils in sun or semi-shade.
Raised at Hillier Nurseries< Hampshire, England by propagator Alan Postill, Daphne bholua ‘JacquelinePostill’is perhaps the finest hardy plant for fragrance. It makes a somewhat upright shrub up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) in height with flexible tan-coloured stems, and emerald evergreen leaves. The foliage is sparser on poor soils and in cold conditions. The flower clusters are already open, purplish-pink in bud opening to mauve -pink flowers; richly scented and profuse. I have two plants in my own garden and working outside at the weekend the scent was truly sweet and almost overpowering.
Edgeworthia chrysantha is an unusual shrub closely related to the daphnes. In late winter silky buds, carried in clusters at the tips of the branches, open into sweetly perfumed rich yellow flowers, covered with shining white hairs. This is a small shrub growing to 1.5 metres that is best grown in a sheltered situation. New leaves are produced as the flowers fade. The pliable branches have light brown, smooth bark that is used in Japan to make fine quality paper used for banknotes.
Sarcococca confusa, Christmas box is a versatile character thriving on any soil in sun or shade. It is at its most useful under trees where its upright green stems can form suckering clumps up to 90cm (3ft) in height, well clothed with shining dark green leaves. In late winter the tiny white thread-like flowers are produced in the leaf axils. What they lack in size and colour they make up for in fragrance. Black berries often follow the flowers. This is a good shrub for cutting for flower decoration and brilliant for bushy ground cover under trees.
Of all the shrubs that surprise with their winter fragrance none does it more than the wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox. I wrote about it in my post A Walk in the Winter Garden: http://www.my-garden-school.com/a-walk-in-the-winter-garden-the-sir-harold-hillier-gardens/ For me the fragrance of this shrub is just pure ‘Jo Malone’ – possibly something between Wild Fig and Cassis and Pomegranate Noir.
The mahonias can start to bloom as early as late October. One of the latest to flower, Mahonia japonica, is also the most fragrant. This is the species with sprays of soft yellow, lily-of-the valley scented flowers that are already opening. Holly like leaves, and strong architectural form, make this a useful shrub for a shady corner where bold structure is needed. It is a plant for any soil and old specimens are easily rejuvenated by hard pruning; this is particularly useful if the plants become leggy with age.
In milder areas and near the coast acacias, or mimosas as they are commonly called, are a familiar sight. The green fern-like foliage of Acacia dealbata, the florist’s mimosa or golden wattle erupts in a frothy cloud of bright yellow in late winter. The scent reminds me of flower shops when I was a child: something like marzipan, sweet and tempting. Acacia dealbata is a fast-growing evergreen tree; excellent for screening. Plant it as a young pot-grown plant and prune lightly after flowering for the first couple of seasons to produce a bushy, dense-headed plant. Mine was budding up nicely in a pot near to the house but I notice its buds have gone brown; undoubtedly caught by those frosts we had in early December. I am just about getting over my disappointment; only another year to wait!
In my conservatory the jasmine, Jasminum polyanthum is already starting to open and fill the air with its iconic fragrance. It makes me crave hyacinths and Soleil-d’Or narcissi, I love them both.