What’s Blooming Now: Sights & Scents of Midwinter
Is winter all just chilly, dark, and gloomy? Well, maybe if you don’t know where to look, or where to sniff. Don’t fret, there are some lovely — often overlooked — sights and scents to enjoy in the midwinter landscape, and we’ll explore some of our favorites here: Witch Hazel, Daphne, and Sarcococca (or Sweet Box).
January 29, 2019
Pick-me-ups for midwinter gloom.
Steeped in the chilly, rainy gloom of January in Seattle, we all need a pick-me-up! So fill your thermos and head outside to experience these subtle, delightful — and often overlooked — garden gems. While midwinter flowers may not be as showy as their spring and summer cousins, they offer a subtle burst of refreshing color that is often accompanied by luscious scents invigorating the senses and providing a little winter respite.
Witch hazels (Hamamelis species) are the star of any winter garden. While blending in as inconspicuous small trees during spring and summer, witch hazels burst to life in midwinter with brightly-colored, uniquely-scented blossoms. You may know witch hazel as the cooling medicinal decoction created from the bark of the North American species (Hamamelis virginiana) often used to treat sunburns.
In addition to being a staple of traditional folk medicine, witch hazels also have important uses in the landscape. With large, slightly rounded green leaves and a low, wide, vase-shaped form, witch hazel is versatile and can be used as a stand-alone sculptural specimen, or as an open screen or backdrop. We love this species for its versatility, unique flowers, and fabulous fall color.
Blooming in mid-January and persisting through early February, witch hazel flowers appear like delicate strands of ribbon: unfurling slender, crinkly petals around a glossy, deep red calyx. Flower color ranges from pale, creamy yellow to deep red, and the unique scent is reminiscent of witch hazel solution — slightly astringent with sweeter notes, depending on the species.
There are several species that thrive in our climate with many more cultivars and varieties that offer variations in flower color and scent, autumn leaf color, and overall tree form and size. Japanese witch hazel (H. Japonica), Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis), and North American witch hazel (H. virginiana) each have their merits, but our favorite selections are cultivars from the hybrid of H. japonica and H. mollis, known as Hamamelis x intermedia.
Shown Above: Witch Hazel - Hamamelis ssp.
Growing up to 10 feet tall and wide ‘Arnold’s Promise’ is a favorite for its bright yellow, sweetly fragrant flowers, and beautiful autumn color. A more subtle, astringent scent accompanies the luscious copper-orange flowers of ‘Jelena’, which grows up to 12 feet tall and wide. Though smaller in stature at eight feet tall and wide, the deep, ruby red flowers and subtly sweet scent of ‘Diane’ stand out in the winter landscape.
When selecting a witch hazel for your garden, consider overall size, structure and desired use. These trees make a great backdrop or screen in open woodland gardens that have plenty of open vertical space. Witch hazel also makes a great espaliered accent along a fence.
With several species and cultivars hardy in our region, the Daphne genus is a popular choice for evergreen foliage and luscious winter blossoms. One of the more common species in our area, winter daphne (Daphne odora), tends to be a tricky plant to grow in our wet climate and heavy clay soils. But never fear! There are plenty of other species that will provide the same great winter scents without the finicky habit.
We prefer to use daphne hybrids and species that have more compact, woody forms that create a consistent evergreen background for the sweet clusters of winter blooms. One of our favorites, Eternal Fragrance daphne (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’) grows as a compact, naturally-rounded shrub with slender, deep green leaves that layer pleasantly along each stem to create an attractive whorled look. For a little added interest, we like Carol Mackie daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’). With a similar habit and leaf structure to Eternal Fragrance, Carol Mackie stands out with delicate white margins on each leaf that create a striking contrast effect.
More commonly planted in the UK, paper plant daphne (Daphne bholua) is a unique favorite with an upright habit up to 10 feet tall and attractive yellow-tinted bark. The hardiest in our region is the Royal Horticultural Society’s cultivar Jaqueline Postill, which has an elegant habit and makes an eye-catching addition to the garden as a sculptural specimen.
Shown Above: Paper Plant Daphne - Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’
Despite the variation in form, height and leaf shape, all these daphne have something in common: their flowers! Clusters of fleshy, four-petaled blossoms, ranging from pale pink to white emerge throughout January and often continue blooming into February. While the flowers themselves are plain but pretty, their intense spicy perfume is truly delightful — even a single shrub will fill the garden with luscious scent. Plant daphne in partial sun to partial shade in containers near doorways, or as a border along pathways to fully enjoy their spicy winter fragrance.
Commonly known as Sweet Box, Sarcococca species are typically prized for their glossy evergreen foliage and high tolerance of shady conditions. A staple foundation plant in shade and woodland gardens, Sarcococca works well in modern and traditional-style landscapes. With species ranging in height from 18 inches to 3 feet, and a range of leaf color from yellow-green to deep emerald. We love to use Sarcococca as a hardy evergreen base in many different landscape applications.
Beyond its utility as an attractive shrub, Sarcococca has a delicious secret that is only revealed in the dead of winter. Starting in mid-January, and often continuing through February, tiny bundles of white stamen emerge in inconspicuous clusters along the underside of the stem. While these flowers may not be noticeable to the eye, their intoxicating vanilla-spice fragrance fills the air around the plant and may make you stop suddenly – sniffing vigorously to try and detect the source of the intense perfume.
Shown Above: Purple Stem Sweet Box - Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’
Sarcococca is a great substitute for the commonly used boxwood (Buxus ssp.) in shady areas, as a formal border or in mixed woodland and shade gardens for a more naturalized look. We recommend using S. hookeriana var. humilis for areas where a low, bright green filler is needed. Species S. confusa and S. ruscifolia are excellent for borders and low backdrops, reaching up to three feet tall and wide, with highly glossy deep, green leaves that have a slight ripple to the edges. For a little added interest, we recommend trying S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ which has showy purple to red stems, a looser habit, and slightly taller stature growing between three and five feet tall.