“If our sense of smell is sluggish … we shall have missed more than half the ecstasy. We shall have missed, for instance, that winter day in January or February when we step out of the door and suddenly smell the spring.” ~ Louise Beebe Wilder
Winter is a fickle old friend to gardeners. It’s a time when you put away the tools and take a rest from the growing seasons. The summer abundance of plant material is now sleeping beneath the earth. The annuals done with their life duty of growing, flowering and setting seed. Now all you want to do is hunker down in the darkness, read a good book, peruse the garden catalogs and visualize your spring landscape while your garden sleeps.
Still, you miss the warm days when the flowers cheered you as you worked in the garden. Gone are the bright petals of summer abundance and the fragrances that drifted lazily under the rays of the warm sun. In winter, when the sun is cloaked behind the endless clouds, many plants vanish underground. The color disappears and all that is left is a dreary landscape.
It doesn’t seem right that this is the season when you have more time to enjoy the garden yet there is little out there to appreciate. But there are signs the garden is waking up. If you planted for winter fragrance, you already enjoy the soul-stirring experience of walking outside on a midwinter day when a delectable sweet whiff of spring greets you.
If you have not planned a winter garden, it’s time to be inspired to plan one that includes flowers that give fragrance this time of the year. Some plants can fill a garden with sweet aroma while others may require you to get up close and personal to enjoy the sweet fragrance.
The spring bulbs will make their debut in January and February, with some of the earliest flowering crocus ready to go from bud to flower.
Crocus requires you to get your nose up close to capture its fragrance. Planting on top of an eye-level rock wall or simply picking a flower to hold will be easier than getting down on your hands and knees to reach it. Netted iris (Iris reticulata) will be showing off its tepals, falls and delicate fragrance. Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) will be also opening their snow-white blossoms. All three of these early birds are fragrant.
Toss some fragrant early daffodils into your winter garden plans too. Many are fragrant, including Narcissus ‘Jetfire,’ which begins to bloom in late winter. Not only will this cyclamineus daffodil cheer you out of the winter doldrums, the flowers will make you believe spring has sprouted.
Plant your bulbs in clumps of 25 or more for best impact.
Trees and shrubs offer some great winter fragrance as well. First on the list are witch hazels (Hamamelis). Cultivars and species of this bewitching winter flower can provide color and fragrance.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ has fragrant flowers made up of 1-inch-long, yellow petals with a burgundy calyx cup. Some of the cultivars and species in this genus have great autumn color. H. ‘Winter Beauty’ and ‘Diane’ show off their true orange-and-red fall color. Plant this genus in the winter garden though — it will be one of the first flowers to offer up fragrance in the new year. H. ‘Jelena’s flowers are not only fragrant but have two-tone, yellow-to-red blossoms.
Another scented shrub for January and related to the witch hazels is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox var. lutea). The shrub will not win awards for handsome good looks, yet the sweet fragrance is a great reason to introduce it to your winter garden. The scent emitted from the yellow flowers will linger in a large area of the garden on a calm day. Cut some branches to bring inside to sweeten the air in your home.
If you believe winter is dreadfully dull and void of flowers, meet the winter-flowering viburnums. V. ‘Charles Lamont’ blooms in the dead of winter, when other plants dare not flower. The extraordinary fragrance, another reason to grow it, attracts pollinators in the winter months. You’ll enjoy the benefits of its need to propagate itself.
‘Dawn,’ sometimes called ‘Pink Dawn,’ looks similar to ‘Charles Lamont’ but blooms in November, while the other waits until January, when both will be in full flower. Both have dark-pink buds that open to pink flowers that fade to white. The two shrubs are tough to tell apart. You can cut the branches and bring indoors for fragrant, winter bouquets.
Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ has a lily-of-the-valley fragrance and flowers from November through winter. The shrub is perfectly hardy here; however, a hard frost can damage the flowers. During mild winters, the flower show is perfect. Under a canopy of evergreens that give light shade and overhead protection, the flowers will sail through many winters unscathed.
Another cultivar of note is ‘Arthur Menzies.’ The resident Anna hummingbirds love these tall shrubs with spikes of scented, yellow flowers. Plant them where you can watch the little hummers take advantage of the flower’s nectar.
The shrubby winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), best known for its extraordinary sweet-honey scent, is another consideration for your fragrant winter garden. The shrub is nothing special to look at — it gives an olfactory treat, not a visual one. To make the bush visually palatable, grow a small clematis vine nearby and let it use the honeysuckle bush as scaffolding to climb on.
A winter garden is not complete without the winter daphnes. With an outstanding winter fragrant flower, Daphne bholua is one of the best. This species once had a reputation for not being hardy; however, it is hardy enough to thrive in this region.
The plant has an open, upright habit and makes a quiet, green backdrop for the garden for most of the year. By midwinter, the white or pink flowers stand out against the wavy, deep-green, evergreen foliage.