Gardening: Heaven scent

Winter-flowering plants can produce some of the garden's sweetest smells. Naila Green offers a guide to the most appealing.
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The Independent Online
Nothing sells like scent at this time of year. We buy it, often at great expense, for our mothers, our lovers and our spotty little brothers, to splash on and spray under. Perhaps we're trying to conjure up the heady days of summer, when natural scents abound. At Christmas we can't expect the same intensity of perfume in the garden, but even in winter we can satisfy this natural yearning for fragrance by growing scented winter- flowering plants.

Plant scents are part of a plant's adaptation to its habitat. The aromatic oils of rosemary and lavender evolved as a defence against browsing animals. Floral scents have developed side by side with the evolution of pollinators, such as birds, bees, and flies, upon which plants depend for reproduction. The scents produced by plants is quite specific: sweetly-scented flowers attract bees, which are after nectar, whereas flowers pollinated by flies develop a different range of often pungent smells.

True, winter may bring fewer flowers, but many of them are strongly scented, to attract the fewer pollinators around. Their colours are often pale and subtle, revelling instead in surprising shapes and haunting scents.

The white flowers of sarcococca are unassuming, and its evergreen foliage is without much interest, but its scent would rival anything you could buy in a bottle. S hookeriana var dygina is the best, and makes good under- planting for large shrubs, being shade-loving and tolerant of dry conditions.

White and shades of pink distinguish the shrubby, scented, winter-flowering honeysuckles. Lonicera fragrantissima and L standishii hide their flowers under their semi-evergreen leaves; L x purpusii, being fully deciduous, displays its clusters of creamy flowers on naked stems, but is equally fragrant.

Abeliophyllum distichum is smothered with ivory-white flowers in February; it needs a sunny, sheltered spot to capture its strong scent. The effect is that of a white forsythia with a spicy fragrance.

For sheer length of flowering and scent, it would be hard to beat Viburnum x bodnantense `Dawn', flowering from October to March and filling the air with deliciously scented, rosy-pink flowers on bare branches. Even a small sprig, brought indoors, fills the room with exquisite fragrance. V x b `Deben', with pure white flowers, equals it for fragrance.

Flowering later in winter and into spring, Daphne mezereum is without rival. An upright and deciduous shrub, it is smothered in deep pink and purple flowers of intense fragrance. Daphne odora `Aureomarginata' is as fragrant, though less showy, with deep-pink-and-white flowers, and glossy evergreen leaves edged with yellow.

Pink, purple and white are predominant in the winter garden, but yellows can be found to sharpen up colour schemes and add warmth. During mild spells in late winter, Azara microphylla's clusters of deep yellow flowers release a strong fragrance of vanilla. It has a rather tender disposition, but is worth a try against a south-facing wall, with its favourite moisture- retentive soil.

Chimonanthus praecox, the wintersweet, also needs a sunny spot, though it prefers a drier and poorer soil than the azara. This is a lovely, hardy shrub, but is for patient gardeners only, as it takes some years to flower. When it is mature, yellow waxy flowers hang from bare branches, so pale that you can almost see through to the purple centres. It is highly fragrant, flowering from December to March, with a sweet, spicy scent which will fill the whole house if it is planted near an open window. The variety `Luteus' has larger flowers, with a stronger, lemon-yellow colouring, but less scent.

Enhance the colouring of the ordinary wintersweet by associating it with a fragrant mahonia. The best scented variety is M japonica, flowering from December to March, with long, yellow racemes and a lily-of-the-valley fragrance.

To spice up these golds and pale yellows, touches of orange or bronze can be found among the witch-hazels. Strands of coppery-orange Hamamelis x intermedia `Jelena', and the reddish-brown `Diane', produce a heady scent, looking especially good against evergreens. Hamamelis mollis, the common witch-hazel, is well known for its golden-yellow flowers, as is H `Pallida', a magnificent, sulphur-yellow variety.

It is surprising, also, how many low, ground-covering plants flowering in winter are scented - such as crocuses, cyclamen, sweet violets, primulas and dwarf iris.

In the garden, fragrance can be found packaged in all sorts of natural shapes, colours and sizes. Even in the depths of winter, you can enjoy floral scents without resorting to expensive perfumes in fancy bottles.