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Scented winter flowers | James Wong on gardens

Aroma therapy: Daphne bholua smells like vintage perfume.
Aroma therapy: Daphne bholua smells like vintage perfume. Photograph: Alamy

To me there is nothing in the garden that is as uplifting as fragrance, particularly in the darkest depths of winter. Catching an unexpected whiff of the scent of summer on a cold, grey day when dashing out the front door or walking to the bus stop is one of the everyday surprises which makes gardening so magical.

However, as a self-confessed fair-weather gardener who hates the cold, for me there is just one downside to many winter flowering shrubs: you have to get out in the freezing drizzle to actually smell them. I barely last a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, a small handful of these beauties also happen to make excellent cut flowers, so you can surround yourself with the scent of the outdoors all day. Having experimented with loads each winter, I have come up with my top four that smell as good in the house as they do in the garden.

‘Wintersweet erupts into waxy yellow flowers with a scent to stop you in your tracks’.
‘Wintersweet erupts into waxy yellow flowers with a scent to stop you in your tracks’. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Wintersweet, or Chimonanthus praecox, lives a secret double life as a mild-mannered garden shrub all summer long, with plain green leaves that are easily overlooked. Yet come this time of year, its bare branches erupt into waxy yellow flowers with deep burgundy throats and a scent that will stop you dead in your tracks. Spicy, sweet and intensely fragrant, it is well worth the few years’ wait for the plants to reward you with flowers.

If you only have a tiny spot to play with, you couldn’t do much better than Daphne bholua, especially if it is overshadowed by trees and tall buildings. These shade-loving, tiny, evergreen shrubs produce delicate white or pink blooms that look like they are made from sugar icing. And the scent – oh, the scent. Deep, rich and classically floral, it reminds me of vintage perfume.

Sarcococca hookeriana is another excellent candidate for smaller, shady spots, producing a jasmine-like scent so powerful you will almost certainly smell it before you see it.

Last but not least comes Viburnum x bodnantense, a large shrub with small pompoms in delicate white or pastel pink. With its extremely long flowering season, starting from mid-autumn until early spring, you’ll get a conveyor of scented blooms right when you need them most.

No garden? No problem

Even if you don’t have any outside space at all, there are many winter flowering house plants you can grow for unbeatable fragrance indoors. I am a huge fan of the ivory, scented flowers of trailing cactus Epiphyllum anguliger, with its mad, fishbone-shaped foliage. For lovers of the classics there are always the white, rose-like flowers of gardenia, with an infamously intense perfume and the old-school bridal bouquet favourite of stephanotis, whose lighter, fresher scent can still fill a room.

Email James at or follow him on Twitter @Botanygeek

This article titled "Scented winter flowers" was written by James Wong, for The Observer on Sunday 14 January 2018 06.00am

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