Perhaps it's nature's compensation for short days and cold nights, or maybe our own sensory deprivation this time of year, but it seems the flowers of winter are the most sweet-smelling of all. These fragrance-packed blossoms are often tiny, nestled beneath foliage for protection from harsh weather. But the lack of showiness is more than made up for by the abundance of sumptuous scent their minuscule blossoms send wafting through the garden on the chill air. Anyone who thinks of gardening as primarily a visual medium needs only to step outside the door in winter to find that it is olfactory as well, with fragrances that stir the heart and memory, riling up the senses even in the dead of winter. The natural world may appear to sleep, but it emits perfume all the same, and it's possible to fill the garden with a parade of extravagant scents all the way from the December solstice through the March equinox.
I always think of winter as being pleasantly bracketed by the aromatic bloom of Viburnum x bodnantense, which comes into full bloom on bare branches by Christmas, and the Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), whose pale pink clusters of spicy-sweet-smelling flowers open in late March. Both are sturdy, hardy shrubs, ideal as part of a border, backdrop for perennials or scaffold for summer-blooming vines.
Perhaps the most heady and exotic of all winter perfumes comes from the daphnes, whose fragrance is as potent as a hit of tropical gardenia. A single branch of Daphne odora, with its tubular purplish-pink and white flowers, scents an entire room inside or out. D. odora 'Aureomarginata' is especially handsome, with glossy evergreen leaves trimmed in cream. The February daphne, or D. mezereum, is leafless when it bursts into bloom with mauve or white flowers full of the sweetest scent. And I hear that Daphne blagayana, a white-flowered prostrate shrub, is powerfully fragrant, but since I've killed it off twice before it had a chance to bloom, I don't know this firsthand.
My favorite winter scent must surely be the compellingly astringent odor that pours forth from the spidery little yellow, orange or bronze flowers of witch hazel. The Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and its hybrids are thought to be the most fragrant, but I've heard many arguments over this point, which is a good reason to buy witch hazel in bloom to make sure the one you pick is fragrant. I watched visitors to last February's Northwest Flower and Garden Show being led about by the nose, searching for the source of that luscious smell, only to be surprised that it came from little yellow flowers dotting this unassuming shrub.
A close second in the pleasing-scent category is sweet box, whose inconspicuous white flowers seem particularly adept at spreading their strong and sweet vanilla aroma widely about the garden. This is a tidy, shade-loving shrub with polished evergreen leaves and shiny red or black berries. Sarcococca humilis is the lowest-growing (to 18 inches) and has narrow leaves, while S. ruscifolia and S. confusa are nearly indistinguishable and grow into small shrubs.
The search for off-season scents is a good excuse to prowl nurseries this time of year. Other fragrant plants to keep an eye out for include Prunus mume, Skimmia japonica (rumor has it the male plant is more highly scented than the female), Lonicera fragrantissima, Mahonia x 'Arthur Menzies' or Mahonia x media 'Charity.'
No matter how aromatic the plant, it won't do you a bit of good if it is stuck in a back corner of the garden where you never venture between October and April. Ideally, winter plants should be grouped for impact (few are flashy stand-alones) close to the front door, or alongside a pathway you and your guests traverse regularly. Winter-blooming treasures are best admired close up, cut and brought indoors or passed by daily for a pick-me-up more potent than a double cap. Just when we most need reassurance that the world continues to spin toward springtime, winter plants open their fragrant flowers full of the promise of next year's garden.
Now In Bloom
I still think of Gaultheria mucronata by its earlier name of pernettya, a shrub laden this time of year with plump and showy pink, white or purple-red berries. Bushy and compact (to 4 feet), it has glossy, spiny evergreen leaves, prefers cool, moist soil and partial shade, and makes a nice little informal hedge or front-of-the-border grouping. Remember to plant both a male and female to ensure fruiting.
Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org