by Charlene Burgi
Have you ever walked through a garden and caught a whiff of something splendid? It is frustrating if the source is not obvious. If you are like me, you could find yourself on a treasure hunt if you choose to take the time to look. Sometimes we can only relish in the moment and move on without knowing the source. The sad part is we often miss this part of a winter garden show since the winter rains and wind find us spending most of our time indoors.
Last week, I had the good fortune of taking time to walk through a lovely garden. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a rather nondescript plant. The leaves were dark green and had a boxwood-like appearance, but I knew better than to keep walking without a closer inspection. Sure enough, I found tiny white buds just ready to burst open hiding beneath the foliage. I recognized this “sleeper” and knew it would soon catch those passing by with the most amazing fragrance found in the garden. Sarcococca ruscifolia is the mystery plant that is often overlooked as a plant for gardens, and that alone is a mystery to me.
This plant is a sleeper in many ways. It thrives in shade gardens. The leaves will burn, or at least wash out, if it gets any direct sunlight. This little beauty is shunned by deer. After it blooms, it produces tiny black berries. While sharing the experience of the garden walk with Jack, he said that he and his dad used to collect and dry the berries for growing additional plants in the nursery. This plant has one more appealing property (if those qualities aren’t enough to have you running to the nearest nursery)—it is a low-water using plant. To really enjoy this plant, place it near a walkway on the north side of the house in total shade and close to an often-used door so you can be carried away by the fragrance in January and February. It is a very slow grower that can be contained in a narrow planting strip.
Another favorite winter bloomer with the same growing needs is Daphne odora. It is at home in the shade, and the deer won’t eat it. Plant it in fast-draining soil and consider its low-water needs when planning your hydrozones. The bonus is that it blooms about the same time as the Sarcococca. You could almost say both plants thrive on neglect. Daphne, however, is a much larger shrub than Sarcococca and you will want to give it more room to grow.
As I was going through my e-catalogs today, another fragrant winter bloomer crossed my path. While you don’t often see it in the nurseries, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana and mollis) is another “sleeper.” I recalled the plant was nothing spectacular to look at, but it carries a wonderful fragrance and medicinal properties that are often associated with skin care. This plant can grow to small tree size of 25 feet. The leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in the fall. One unique behavior is the tree will literally “spit” its black seeds up to 33 feet. Perhaps it would be best to locate this one on the fringe of the garden!
If you are looking for fragrance in the garden, consider including at least one of these plants and enjoy the gift of its fragrance year after year.