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Eau de winter

20 June 2024
chongqing blooming wintersweet flower in the park
Wintersweet

Let your garden lead you by the nose by growing ‘scent-sational’ cool-season plants.
Words MARILYN WIGHTMAN

As if to make up for the lack of flower colour at this time of year, fragrant winter-flowering plants exude scent in abundance. As well as lifting our spirits, they also provide nectar for bees and birds. Here in the Manawatū, we enjoy the swooping flurry of tūī in winter, who come to feed on the nectar provided by flowering camellias. Many of the plants mentioned here are shrubby trees and most have been used historically for fragrance or medicinal purposes.

Wintersweet
Also called Japanese allspice, wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) has waxy, yellow or pale brown flowers that have a splash of crimson in the throat of each bloom. These flower on bare branches, and to stand next to a flowering bush and inhale is one of life’s pleasures. This shrubby tree reaches more than 3m high in maturity. It is cold-hardy and grows well in frosty areas. Eventually coming into leaf in early spring, the shrub returns to anonymity over summer, after doing its best all winter.

Witch Hazel
This too is a deciduous tree with attractive spider-shaped yellow, orange or red flowers (depending on the variety) that bloom from mid-winter and have a spicy fragrance. Witch hazel (Hamamelis) is slow-growing but will eventually reach around 5m high. The tree is still used in medicinal and cosmetic preparations and is known to have a soothing effect on the skin.

Daphne Bholua
This shrub is native to mountainous regions of Asia, so is cold-hardy. It produces clusters of scented white flowers with pink tinges, and is just as fragrant as the more commonly known Daphne odora. It prefers a cool, shady spot in the garden, so plant it in a south-facing area or even against a shaded fence or house wall. It can grow up to 2m high but rarely gets any wider than 1m. The leaves are narrow and much softer in form than D. odora. Carefully remove any suckers that form to start new plants and replant them elsewhere or give them away.

Camellia
The leaves of one camellia species, Camellia sinensis, are drunk everyday in many households as tea. Before they reach our pantries though, they go through a fermentation process to become either green or black tea leaves. In the garden in winter they produce lightly scented single-petalled white flowers with gold stamens. Close cousins, the C. sasanqua varieties have many scented cultivars which flower from May onwards, including ‘Setsugekka’, ‘Cotton Candy’ and ‘Exquisite’. Other notable scented camellias to look out for include the varieties ‘High Fragrance’, ‘Sweet Emily Kate’, ‘Scentsation’ and the species C. Lutchuensis.

Lemon-scented Tea Tree
Although it’s closely related to our native mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium), lemon-scented tea tree (L. petersonii) originates from Australia. This shrubby tree will grow to 5m high, becoming nearly as wide as it is tall. The fragrant leaves make a pleasant lemon-scented tea when brewed in a teapot. This herbal tree has an added aromatic bonus in summer, when the bush is covered in honey-scented flowers. During a mild autumn, it can keep flowering into the winter months.

Balm of Gilead
As the Latin name Cedronella canariensis suggests, this herb originates in the Canary Islands. It is a quick-growing shrubby herb that reaches 2m high x 1m wide and is drought-tolerant. In summer, the purplish flower heads make a statement, but as an evergreen perennial with very fragrant foliage it has prominence all winter long. Just brushing past the bush releases an intense camphor scent. The freshly picked leaves can be inhaled to help clear blocked sinuses. Balm of Gilead retains its scent when dried and sewn into a scent bag.

Scented pelargonium
These fragrant pelargoniums are appreciated for their intensely scented foliage. Most common are the rose-scented pelargoniums, which are grown commercially to produce essential oil of geranium, but there are also varieties with lemon, apple, orange and mint-scented leaves. They grow into small shrubs up to 1m x 1m round and are frost-tender, so should be planted against a wall or a fence in full sun where the latent heat will help them flourish and protect them from the chill of a morning frost.

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