Honey and spice in the winter gardens
Working in the gardens during January, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the snow drops, crocus and hellebores, I noticed that here and there the air was filled with scent and my eye was drawn to several early flowering shrubs.
In most cases the flowers of these shrubs are less conspicuous than those of the flowering plants we grow to show off their colourful blooms. For instance, by the door to Wychfield House we have Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) its soft yellow flowers hang their heads unassumingly, but their super power is their wonderful cinnamon scent, hence their other common name; Japanese allspice.
Meanwhile, all around the gardens the small white clustered flowers of evergreen Christmas Box (Sarcococca confusa) are infusing the air with their powerful aroma. The shrub is unremarkable, it is useful as a foil for more showy flowering plants but is very often planted in gateways and entrances where it can distinguish itself with its wonderful perfume. The scent is undeniably of honey. And this got me thinking because actually, I suppose it’s quite the other way around. The scent is of nectar and honey smells of nectar because that’s what it’s made of! Anyway, pardon my meanderings, let’s get back to the plants…
Behind Herrick House we have a beautiful Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) another winter flowering wonder, its flowers are bright, sunshine yellow and have a strangely shaggy appearance, like a bad hair do! It has relatives in colours from palest yellow through to deep burnt orange and rich pinkish red. Once again they have an alluring scent to attract early season pollinators like the buff tailed bumble bee.
Last call must be winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). I struggle with this one. It is a very untidy, woody and tangled affair with plain, sparse leaves during the warmer months, but in winter it produces delicate white flowers with a rich fragrance that really does fill the air. So we forgive its underperforming in summer; I suppose no-one can be at their best all year round!
Sam Hartley, Head Gardener