Fragrant Winter Flowering Shrubs
By: Pam Beck
Because of our unseasonably mild January in the Southeast, the bees and I are swooning over an astonishing number of fragrant winter flowering shrubs in the garden.
But, why would Mother Nature spend so much effort creating intense fragrance for mid-winter flowers?
It is because honeybees require warm air temperatures in order to be coaxed out of their wintertime sluggishness, and hive numbers are low during chilly months, so the competition is fierce among winter flowering plants to attract these few brave little winged souls.
Therefore, frost-coated shrubs use the most potent enticements available – eye-catching flower color and intense fragrance. As fragrance is the only lure that easily rides air currents around the garden, the more powerful a plant’s perfume, the better its chance of pollination.
Here is a selection of some of my favorite winter flowering shrubs beginning with the evergreens, followed by the deciduous, in order to help you find something fragrant to enjoy in your own garden this winter, or next.
Your nose, and the bees, will thank you.
Osmanthus, also called False Hollies or Fragrant Tea Olives, are intensely scented evergreen shrubs. The sugary-fruity smell from Osmanthus causes garden visitors to stop in their tracks and inhale deeply. Distinguishable by their opposite leaves (remember “O” for Osmanthus and opposite, whereas true hollies have alternating leaves) these hardy plants are very tolerant of difficult sites and are almost trouble-free once established.
If left unpruned, Osmanthus fragrans with its tiny white flowers, and O. fragrans var. aurantiacus with similar light orange blooms, can become small trees throughout Zone 7.
Mahonia are architecturally stunning evergreens that produce upright sunny golden-yellow spikes of flowers during winter which later transform into downward hanging clusters of frosted blue berries, thus giving the plants their common name of Grape Hollies. Ranging from low growing ground covers to 10-foot statuesque focal points, Mahonia are tolerant of shade and make great specimen plantings. Perhaps the best fragrance exudes from Mahonia bealei or the Leatherleaf Mahonia, which begins flowering in early winter.
Sarcococca is an old-fashioned plant often called Christmas Box or Sweet Box. Evergreen, shiny, and dark green leafed this shrub may be forgotten in dry, deep shade until it flowers in early winter with intensely sweet perfume wafting from the tiniest white flowers. One of my favorites for our Southeastern gardens is Sarcococca confusa, a 3-5’ shrub that often holds the previous year’s glossy black berries with the new blooms.
Fickle Daphne is the heartbreaker that we continue planting for its unforgettable winter fragrance. Daphne need perfect soil, they hate to be transplanted, can’t be bumped, and will turn up their toes if the amount of water is wrong, but we have to have them. It is because of their strong fruity scent escaping from pinkish or white blooms in late January to February. Most garden centers offer Daphne odora and Daphne x burkwoodii, which should be 3-4 foot high and wide with age.
Edgeworthia papyrifera, commonly called the rice paper plant, is one of the most unusual looking shrubs in the winter garden with its naked tan branches tipped by tight 1-inch round clusters of flower buds of the shiniest silvery silk. Then on warm winter days individual buds elongate into half-inch long, deep golden trumpets pouring out rich fragrance that reminds me of sugary icing. Mine have topped out at 4-feet, but Edgeworthia can grow as tall as 6-8 feet in Zones 7-9.
Flowering Quince are just starting to bloom, and what a show they will provide with colors ranging in various shades of white, pink, red, and orange, not to mention the multi-colored blooms of Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Toyo-Nishiki’. The fragrance is slight and fruity, but quince reliably flowers through the coldest months. The mature size will depend on the type, and there are some exciting new hybrids available at your local garden center.
Winter Flowering Jasmine
Winter Flowering Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, is an arching 2-4 foot tall shrub that can eat a lot of garden real estate unless periodically sheared. This shrub will fool your neighbors into thinking that you have the earliest Forsythia on the block, as it also sports yellow bells, but on long green whips of branches. One of the easiest plants to grow, Winter Jasmine is a great solution for a difficult bank or slope.
Viburnum range from evergreen to deciduous, short to tall, and some of this large group of shrubs bloom in the dead of winter. Viburnum tinus is a rounded, medium-sized evergreen seen with abundant buds breaking into slightly fragrant flower from January to February, but for intense fragrance look for the upright deciduous Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ with its sweet-smelling pink flowers.
Chimonanthus praecox or Wintersweet was in full flower in my garden this past Christmas, and will continue throughout the winter. A large shrub reaching 10-15 feet; Wintersweet has the most richly-colored golden, waxy, cupped flowers with purple centers that stream perfume enveloping the entire garden. It grows well in drier sites from full sun to part shade. Once you have experienced its magic, you will have to own one.
Hamamelis is the scientific name for witch hazels. Often described as small trees, witch hazels are so slow to get growing that you may decide to keep them as shrubs, especially if you delight in cutting branches for indoor enjoyment. The elongated petals of the flowers arrange themselves in clusters along the branches like some type of long-legged sea creatures on a coral reef, and range in color from bright yellow to orange or rusty-red with new cultivars always on the horizon. Not all witch hazels are fragrant, but if you find one that is, like Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’, grab it.
Corylopsis is also known as Winter-hazel, so it is often confused with the previous two plants. A very desirable 4-6’ shrub is Corylopsis pauciflora, or the Buttercup Winter-hazel, with its pale lemon-yellow pendulous flowers drooping from thin stems sharing their mild scent.
Lonicera is the group of plants that we know and love as honeysuckles, so you can imagine the amazing bouquet of the Winter Honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima. A huge, rangy shrub, this woody plant is an old-fashioned favorite for its tiny white flowers. We have Winter Honeysuckle planted at our parking pad so that we are greeted by its sweet scent all winter long.
If you’d like to learn more about fragrant winter flowering shrubs, find a copy of The Winter Garden, Planning and Planting for the Southeast by Peter Loewer and Dr. Larry Mellichamp, originally published in 1997 by Stackpole Books, and still in print.