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Plant of the Month January 2018

Chimonanthus praecox

Despite being long described elegantly in terms of notes, chords and harmonies, scent is the most primitive of our senses. Set deep in our memories, interpreted faster than sound and extensively associated with sexual attraction and death, it is a complex and not always agreeable part of experiencing the world around us. Yet during the darkest depths of winter, amid the gentle evergreens and pleasing architecture of winter interest, is when fragrance is perhaps most enjoyed, as it is the scented plants which breathe the hot breath into our gardens. 

Admittedly there are many pleasing scented plants in gardens throughout winter, the likes of Viburnum, Honeysuckle and Witch-hazel can often be found, however it is the exotic and spicy scent of Chimonanthus praecox or Winter Sweet, which is the show stealing, head turning plant of note. Brought over to Britain from China in 1766, Lord Coventry planted it in his conservatory at Croome Court, it was only understood as a hardy plant nearly 100 years later. Evidently a hit, the so-called father of English gardens John Loudon even proclaimed that, ‘no garden should be without it’. 

Chimonanthus praecox is one of six species in the genus, all of which are from China. It is a deciduous shrub that grows up to 13m tall. Leaves are oblong shaped, 2-12cm long and papery. The waxy, buttery coloured flowers are each about 2-3cm wide and are formed on the branches of previous year’s growth. These appear in abdundance from November to March, before leaves form. Strongly fragrant and sometimes used as cut flowers for scent, the smell has been described as a mix of daffodil (jonquil type) and violets. It is definitely sweet and as with other flowers in the ‘heavy group’ potentially rising to a likeness of putrefaction when inhaled in excess. So go easy on the indoor floral arrangements, as in the dangerous world of scent, there is a surreal fine line between the whiff of a citrus honeyed dessert and the fifth stage of death. 

An ‘easy do-er’, Chimonanthus praecox and its varieties, will grow well in full sun or semi-shade, and enjoys moist, fertile soil. The cultivar ‘Grandiflorus’ produces particularly large flowers, and C. var. concolor as the name suggests, is without the red markings seen internally to the flower. Once established, it can be pruned back fairly hard to avoid a large woody plant, and by doing so soon after flowers have gone over, will ensure a manageable size and good flowering, produced at eye height. 

Softwood tip cuttings can be taken in late spring or semi ripe tip cuttings in late summer, with cuts made under a node, creating a piece about 15cm long. Leaves can be trimmed back to half size, in order to slow transpiration and keep tidy. Push cuttings into a 50:50 mix of coir and perlite with the use of a rooting hormone to speed up the process if desired. We suggest the used of 0.5% IBA (Indole-3-butyric acid, a synthetic auxin hormone sold in garden centres in the form of products such as ‘Strike’). Keep cuttings in pots covered with the likes of a plastic bag to prevent drying out and roots should form within 6-8 weeks. 

Easy to grow from seed, and despite what can be read, it is possible to grow to flowering size within 3 years. For best results collect the current year’s seed in autumn and either sow in pots left outside in a cold frame over winter, or place in a bag of moist perlite inside the fridge for 3 months before sowing in pots kept in a propagator or warm window sill. 

Should you have suffered from vine weevil in the past, preventive measures can be taken by applying nematodes to pots before the problem arises as this plant is vulnerable to attack. The only other problem generally suffered is that of aphids in the spring, however birds such as blue tits will usually find them once numbers are considerable. 

A worthy garden plant for this time of year, if it is so believed that a garden is indeed, ‘…the greatest refreshment of the spirits of man’ as the 17th century Francis Bacon put to us, then let no bar ever run short of Winter Sweet.

 Key references:
Scented Flora of the world, Roy Genders
Gifts from the Gardens of China, Jane Kilpatrick

Andrew Luke and Miranda Janatka Posted by Andrew Luke and Miranda Janatka

Andrew Luke is Head Gardener at Wrest Park (English Heritage). He can be contacted on Twitter @PlantGrafter
Miranda Janatka is a Botanical Horticulturist at Kew Gardens, she can be contacted at Twitter on @Miranda_J​

2 Comments To "Plant of the Month January 2018"

Margaret Stone On 10.01.2018
The original conservatory plant at Croome grew large and scented the air up to 50 yards away. It was propagated by layers, as well as cuttings and seed. Plants were grown outside (in the C18) and covered with a mat in severe weather. The Earl of Coventry gave many plants to London nurserymen. Reply to this comment
Miranda On 13.01.2018
Thank you for your comment, I didn’t know this, it is fascinating to hear how a plant so common to gardens now started in just one garden over here.
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