Winter Sweetness for the Eyes and the Nose

a Basket of Winter Flowers, painting on silk by Li Song (1166-1243)
Basket of Winter Flowers, painting on silk
Li Song (1166-1243)

The realism allows each plant to be identified. What we see is a rattan basket filled with some of the earliest flowers of the year. From left, they are (top) Chinese winter-flowering plum with green calyx, (bottom) narcissus, camellia, wintersweet, and daphne. Once plum blossoms have been open for a while, the calyx changes to red, so this state indicates the freshest and first flowers to be produced. What the picture can’t show you is the fragrance these emit: the winter-flowering plum, narcissus, daphne, and wintersweet all offer at least as much pleasure to the nose, if not more. There is much to be said about each one, but it’s the last and least known that makes a good topic for today.

flowers of wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, against a blue sky
photo by Shu Suehiro (CC by 3.0)

Chimonanthus literally means “winter flower” in Greek, and all the species originate in China. They vary in their perfume, with endangered nitens having hardly any at all, and timing, with salicifolius blooming in fall. The most common species, and the one shown here, is praecox (meaning early or precocious). It is mentioned in poems from the 11th Century on, and was first brought outside China probably around 1620, to Japan. Plants survived the long sail to Europe in 1766, and Linnaeus gave the bush its first official name. That was a long time ago, but as garden writer Ann Leighton observed, “While buildings may decay and crumble, the plants of every age are still with us and need only to be collected and replanted to speak for the time and its people.” Indeed, as long as you live in the right climate, you could grow all the plants in the arrangement above and redo it each winter if you wished.

Chimonanthus praecox in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, Tokyo, Japan
Chimonanthus praecox in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, Tokyo, Japan

Wintersweet will grow well in soil conditions that suit azaleas and its wood will survive temperatures down to about 0° or maybe -10° F. Like quince and forsythia, cut branches can bring a little cheer inside the home when the outside is so dreary. It does best in a sunny position with some shade, and looks smashing against a dark background ( . . . trust me, dahling!). Try to site yours near an evergreen and you’ll get the best effect. Consider choices such as a group of large rhododendrons or mountain laurel, a stand of bamboo, holly (especially a dark-leaved form), Southern magnolia, yew, Juniper ‘Idylwild’, Nordmann Fir, Japanese fir (Abies firma), Nikko Fir (homolepis), or China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata).

Like witch hazel, some azaleas, and some viburnum, wintersweet can grow quite large: 15 feet tall. As a result, when you put one in, plan ahead. Consider that it may attain a vase shape or tree-like stature in the yard. On large specimens, some people trim off the small lower branches to increase this effect, or just for clearance, so you can mow and not have to duck. Wintersweet will not grow as large in the most northern part of its range, which is wherever winter temperatures can dip around zero. In extreme years it could die back to older wood, or all the way the ground. If you’re thinking about trying one, read this rhapsody to wintersweet from Val Bourne.

Copper plate engraving with color done by hand, 1826 by Sydenham Edwards. Plate 451 from Volume 12 of The Botanical Register published by James Ridgway in London. Although this image shows the leaves for the sake of illustration, it would never be in bloom with the leaves on.
Copper plate engraving with color done by hand, 1826, Sydenham Edwards
Although this image shows the leaves for the sake of illustration, it would never be in bloom with the leaves on.
Plate 451 from Volume 12 of The Botanical Register published by James Ridgway in London

Because this plant needs good drainage, it will not prosper in clay soils. If you have clay and wish to try it anyway, plant yours on a slope or in a raised area. In addition to organic matter, the best amendment for clay soil is a ceramic coarse grit sold under various encouraging names such as “soil perfector.” You only use it once and it doesn’t break down, so it’s worth the rather trifling cost and trouble.

If you’re ever in Germany, there’s a terrific specimen on the Isle of Mainau. If you’re ever in the right part of China, try to stop by the famous Wuxi Plum Garden. In 2015, they added a collection of Chimonanthus, which China Daily reports “will be the largest wintersweet garden in East China.” This planting gives one more reason the Wuxi Plum Garden ought to be a magnet for any plantwise tourist.

cut branches of Chimonanthus praecox inside
One the best ways to enjoy this plant is to cut a few branches in January or February and bring them inside. The flowers will open and release their evocative scent.

 

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