The Fragrant Year –Winter Perfume

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Prunus Mume flowers with blue sky

As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by fragrant flowers, and try to include at least a few in my garden for each season including winter, spring, summer and fall.

Winter fragrances are especially welcome when few flowers brave the cold. Even on a frigid January day, the swollen buds of the Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume (Zone 6 to 9) always make me smile. In my former garden I grew this small tree on the strip between the sidewalk and the street, where it thrived with little or no special attention. I still remember the time someone mistakenly thought it was a cherry tree blooming out of season, until I informed them that it was flowering just when it was supposed to, during January and February. There are numerous selections including ‘Peggy Clarke’ with double, deep rose-pink flowers, ‘Matsurabara Red’ with double, dark red flowers and ‘Rosemary Clarke’ with double fragrant white flowers. The blooms stand out against shiny green leafless stems and although it produces small apricot-type fruits, in my experience, they are tasteless. 

One of the earliest winter bloomers, among the trees and shrubs, with flowers appearing sometimes in December, is fragrant wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox (Zone 6 to 9). What this shrub lacks in grace it more than makes up for with its heavenly perfume.


Chimonanthus Praecox Grandiflorus close up


Site it at the back of a border in front of some evergreens. Make sure you can get up close to enjoy the blossoms when they pump out their fragrance. My favorite description of these jewel-like flowers appears in The Fragrant Year, a book written by Helen Van Pelt Wilson and Leonie Bell.  The edition I have dates to 1967 (long before I started gardening or writing about plants) and I treasure it still. The descriptions and black and white line drawings are invaluable. “The flowers begin as little balls easily detected in early fall in the leaf axils of five-year or older plants. First they swell to fat golden peas; when open their overall color is sheer yellow, so transparent that the shadow lines of outer petals are visible within. The flowers are stemless, perched snug against gray twigs, opening upside-down more often than not.  We find it like Jasminum officinale—far carrying, never heavy, exquisite, a perfume of which we cannot get enough.” 

Another shrub noted for its winter flowers is witchhazel. There are many to choose from and if you are a collector, you could have types blooming from fall through spring. A few years ago I purchased one from a local specialty nursery that I think is called Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel ’ (Zone 5 to 8).


Hamamelis "Orange Peel"


It is a young plant and so far it has only produced a few flowers but they are colorful and fragrant.  The native witchhazel, Hamamelis vernalisproduces small fragrant flowers in February (Zone 4 to 8).  


Hamamelis Vernalis Bloom


If there were a contest for the most popular fragrant evergreen shrubs, Daphne odora, fragrant daphne, (Zone 7 to 9) would likely win the most votes for its incredible perfume. Depending on the selection, the flowers are pink or white and leaves are solid green or variegated. I like Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’ with white flowers.  This shrub is happiest when it has a well-drained soil and, it makes a lovely specimen for container gardening. 


Daphne Odora Auero Marginata and Container Garden