Chimonanthus praecox

Wintersweet is one of winter’s compensations: a reminder that life does not stop in the dark, short days, it merely slows down, and for some species, it starts. In each flower, the next generation is conceived, and with the fertile seed, life begins. I first encountered Chimonanthus on a cold January evening in Oxford. I smelt it before I saw it, and followed my nose some 20m/60′ before finding the source, tucked against the old city wall. Even then I was confused as the scent hardly seemed stronger up close to the shrub than it had at some distance: it was equally diffuse throughout its range. The flowers are visually insignificant, and I concluded that whatever it was, it must be pollinated by moths, some species of which fly in even the coldest of the winter months. In fact, this Chinese native is pollinated by beetles, those industrious creatures which seem to have a nose for so many good things.

In China it has been cultivated for over one thousand years, being highly valued for its scent and its usefulness in traditional medicine. Its cultivation spread to Korea and Japan, and in the modern era to the USA and Britain. It was worth the wait.

Wintersweet is praecox and the flowers are borne on bare twigs, although sometimes the last of the golden autumn leaves are still clinging on when it starts to bloom. The flower has waxy, translucent petals, the outer being pale yellow whilst the inner petals are pale yellow with dark red markings. They are a little more than a centimetre across and hang their heads like a shy child. Only the scent catches the attention. The scent is sweet enough to warrant the name, certainly, and slightly fizzy, like sherbet.

In Oxford it was growing in a shady spot against an east-facing stone wall and it was rather untidy. In our garden here there is a mature shrub, growing freely. It has reached 4m/14′ in all directions and has a round, fairly open-branched habit. In leaf it is not that decorative, and it is better suited to a larger garden than ours where the burden of putting on a show can be shared by many plants. Or perhaps the edge of a woodland garden where I would plant it with other winter-flowering shrubs such as Oemleria and Hamamelis. Hamamelis, witch hazel, has spidery flowers which likewise are borne on bare twigs, whilst Oemleria tends to flower just as the bright green leaves are breaking bud. All three share scent characteristics, being light, diffuse, and clean-smelling. The scents harmonise, creating a pleasingly intriguing cocktail. Visually, all three are modest, which makes their companionship easy. In the garden here our wintersweet is planted next to an equally mature Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. It too flowers in winter, but the marriage is not a happy one. The Viburnum’s scent is heavier and sweeter, almost cloying, and it overwhelms the delicate wintersweet.

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