A Gardening Journal

Must Have: Wintersweet

For humans, December is a peak month for parties. It's the depth of dormancy for most plants hardy to zone 6 and colder but, for a few contrarians, the season's short days and sharp winds are encouraging: December is their month to party, too.

 

Here's a stem of a Chinese shrub known in the West as wintersweet. In December, buds as large as buckshot mature to flowers with translucent palest-yellow petals.

 

Chimonanthus praecox National Arboretum flowers fingers 122616 640 

 

I've twisted the stem to reveal more of the interior of one of the blossoms. Normally, Chimonanthus praecox flowers face down, perhaps so that the inner groups of petals, which form narrow cups, will keep the pollen dry.

 

Chimonanthus praecox National Arboretum flowers details 122616 640

 

The flowers and buds may look pale, droopy, and scattered, but no matter: this plant's December celebration is about fragrance, not appearance. Spicy and sweet, to me the wafting perfume recalls carrot cake smothered in cream-cheese frosting.

 

Your nose may well beat your eyes at letting you know that a flowering wintersweet is nearby. Indeed, while visiting The National Arboretum the day after Christmas, I was drawn to a yellow-barked scholar tree (which I'll introduce next) but couldn't maintain that focus because of a penetrating fragrance that, seemingly, had just enveloped me. Turning, I realized that a colony of wintersweet was just across the pathway at my back.

 

Chimonanthus praecox National Arboretum flowers fingers foliage 122616 640

 

In Zone 7 and warmer, wintersweet can grow fifteen feet high and nearly as wide but, north of Philadelphia, it's usually half that at best. That's a helpful possibility as I figure out a location for wintersweet in my garden beds in southern New England, which have long become crowded. Alas, a compact wintersweet cultivar isn't yet known, so I'll be exploring how Chimonanthus can be trained to a smaller footprint. As an espalier, perhaps? Or a smaller than free-range mound achieved by removing the tallest branches in favor of younger (and, therefore, temporarily shorter) stems arising from the base?

 

Then, there's the challenge of the shrub's hardiness: in Zone 6, it persists only because of astute siting and handling. Fine. There can never be too many plants singing their sweetest in the off-season, so I'm on board for several years of try-and-try-again experimentation.

 

 

I'll be planting this essential species in the spring of 2017. I'll post a full profile after I've succeeded in providing what the shrub needs to perform year after year with generosity and enthusiasm.

 
 
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