Few gardens contain the shrub Stachyurus praecox, so you may never have seen it in flower. If you had, you would certainly remember, because it has an unusual beauty.

The Stachyurus praecox's home is Japan and western China, where it can reach 15ft high - although in Britain, it is more likely to be half this height. The plant's chief glory is its flowers, which open anytime now, depending on the weather. In mild winters, they may open in mid-February, especially if the spot in which they are growing is sheltered from the worst conditions.

The flowers are pale greenish-yellow in colour and appear before the leaves, draping the bare branches like golden rain. Individually, they are small and cup-shaped, but they hang in short pendants, like beads on a string - similar to catkins, but with more distinction. As if to show them off, the branches sweep gracefully upwards.

The plant's youngest stems bear no flowers, but are reddish-purple to compensate. If you want to limit the spread of the bush, cut some of the oldest branches as soon as they have flowered, but not these new red ones, because they will bring flowers in future seasons.

As a companion to this beautiful but neglected shrub, try Skimmia japonica "Fragrans". It forms a compact dome of glossy, evergreen foliage, about 3ft high and wide, with a clean outline that makes a satisfying contrast to its spreading neighbour, particularly in winter. It flowers profusely, from mid-April to June, bearing squat, upright pyramids of small, white, flowers which smell like lily of the valley.

In the shade cast by these two shrubs grows the sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, which will quickly form a soft and trouble-free carpet. Growing to less than 1ft high, it spreads sideways as far as you will allow. Its narrow, emerald-green leaves are arranged around the stem like the spokes of a wheel and, gazing down on the foliage, each whorl remains distinct. From May to June, this green carpet is speckled with tiny, star-shaped, white flowers.

In Old French the woodruff was called Muge-de-boys, musk of the woods, because both the flowers and leaves are fragrant. When dried they have the sweet smell of hay and were used to freshen rooms, as stuffing for beds and to place among linen.

This is a useful plant to have close at hand should an accident befall you as you wield your spade around the garden, because the fresh, bruised leaves are said to have a healing effect on wounds.

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