Field Notes 31

Southeast BY CAROL BISHOP MILLER/ Huntsville, Alabama, Zone 7

Scents of Winter

WINTER FLOWERS always come as a special delight—all the more so if they happen to be fragrant. Luckily, we in the South can grow a number of winter-blooming shrubs renowned for their fragrance.

January brings with it the dreamy aroma ofwintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox, pictured). Hardy from USDA Zones 6 (when tucked against a protective wall) to 9, this Chinese immigrant bears a strong family resemblance to our native sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), with husky stems stretching to 15 feet and large, rough but pliant, sharply tapered, deciduous leaves. Wintersweet is content to serve as background filler for more flamboyant neighbors three seasons of the year. But come winter, in a gradual display that stretches from Christmas through February here in Zone 7, the globular buds arrayed along the stout, naked stems unfurl one by one into inch-wide, sun-catching blossoms resembling disheveled, airborne water lilies, pale yellow on the outside, maroon at the center, with a sublime, spicy scent. An undemanding shrub, wintersweet asks only to be given well-drained soil and, for best results, a bit of sun.

Even in heavy shade the upright, unbranched stems of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei; Zones 6-9), with its long, spiny, pinnately compound evergreen leaves, are crowned in February—or even earlier— with stiff, starlike racemes of butter-yellow, bell-like blossoms with a fragrance often compared to that of lily-of-the-valley. Birds quickly abscond with the frosty blue berries that follow the flowers. This large (to six feet or more), coarse-textured Chinese shrub wants well-drained, humus-rich soil and protection from strong sun. Pruning out older canes combats a tendency to legginess.

“The flowers are several in a cluster, four threads of translucent gold caught in a wine colored cup,” Elizabeth Lawrence wrote of the keenly fragrant blossoms that appeared for two months or more each winter on the Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis; Zones 5-8) in her Charlotte, North Carolina, garden. A wide-spreading shrub or small, slow-growing tree to 15 feet or more with nearly circular, deciduous leaves that glow yellow and soft orange in fall, Chinese witch hazel enjoys sun but accepts shade in organically rich, moist, acid, well-drained soil. The wispy, frostproof, yellow to deep red flowers of our native vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis; Zones 4-8) are powerfully scented but often obscured by late-held leaves on this exceptionally rugged, suckering shrub. With its tolerance for both dry and poorly drained soil, high or low pH, sun or shade, vernal witch hazel is a sterling choice for problem sites.

The temperamental winter daphne (D. odora; Zones 7-9) has been called a prima donna, but this is inaccurate. An operatic heroine dies a lingering (and vocal) death; the silent daphne succumbs suddenly, without warning. No one knows why, but viruses and poor drainage receive the most blame. Still, I would risk the heartbreak, for the tightly clustered, waxen blooms of this glossy, evergreen shrub exude a piercingly sweet, fruity scent. Flowers range from cream and pink to hot purple, depending on variety, and some cultivars sport shade-brightening variegated foliage. Seldom exceeding four feet by four feet, winter daphne prospers longer with light, organic, perfectly drained soil and shelter from the midday sun.

Position all these smell-good shrubs where their fragrance won’t be missed, and remember—bloom times vary according to zone, siting, and the vagaries of weather.

Worth growing

Crocus tommasinianus At the feet of your winter-blooming shrubs, scatter a dozen or so corms of Crocus tommasinianus (Zones 5-8a). In well-drained soil, “tommies” rapidly increase to become, on sunny, midwinter days, a shimmering sheet of dainty, starlike saucers of light. Though flowers are typically lavender, available variants and hybrids range from white to rosy purple.

To do in the garden

  • Winter is the time to rest our muscles and flex our imaginations. Daydream over catalogs, making lists as you go. Total the lists, and have a good laugh (some revision may be in order).

  • Gaze out the window. With deciduous foliage out of the picture, you can better evaluate your garden’s design and contemplate changes.

  • Use mild days in late February to perform needed surgery on hollies and other overgrown evergreens and on those summer-flowering shrubs that will bloom on new wood, such as Buddleia and Abelia.

  • Give ornamental grasses a severe haircut, first binding them in the middle to make them into an easily transported bun.

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