Winter Fragrance


I come from a place where the most you can hope for from a winter garden is good architecture—intricate branch structure, conifer pillars, berries that hang until gobbled by birds, seed pods left like surrogate flowers as they slowly crumble in the snow and wind. You can imagine my surprise when, upon moving to Portland six Januarys ago to begin a horticulture degree, I found on the winter plant ID roster a number of flowering shrubs.

The idea was novel to me. It made my new home seem endlessly exotic: flowers in January. On our first plant walk, we were introduced to Dawn viburnum (Viburnum x. bodnantense ‘Dawn’), a deciduous shrub whose bright pink January blossoms erupt on bare, lichen- and moss-adorned branches. We could smell its sugary fragrance a few feet away, and up close the flowers were implausibly sweet—scent infiltrating the realm of flavor.

The school had a row of witch hazels (Hamamelis mollis), their ribbon-like petals bursting out in succession toward the end of the month; yellows and burgundies perched on bare branches like exuberance itself. Though lightly scented, their simple sweetness still enchanted me.

I was born in January and my birthday month has always held distinct beauty for me—its blowing snow and frosted branches never disappointed. But until I moved here, January had never sent me a bouquet, richly fragrant with simple, Spartan elegance.

That first month in Portland, I visited the Chinese garden and found a ten-foot shrub decorated in alabaster yellow blossoms with rusty blotches on the inner petals. Its homely flowers and messy, bare branches were not the lure that hooked and dragged me to it. From the next courtyard over, I could smell its fragrance: citrus, ylang-ylang and clove. A touch of heady jasmine softened by the slightest hint of rose; perfectly balanced and magnificent in the cold January air.

The plant, I later learned, is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), native to temperate China (as all of these species are), grown for its transporting fragrance, prized by gardeners in climates that match its home turf, from the Pacific Northwest and the Southest to Great Britain. It is a standby in traditional Chinese gardens.

Other noteworthy species in the fragrant winter garden include: Winter daphne (Daphne odora), a broadleaf evergreen shrub with tight clusters of pinkish-purple flowers and a scent that rivals wintersweet in its power and grace. Chinese paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), a deciduous shrub with handsome, smooth branches, downturned clusters of yellow flowers at the branch tips, a thick jasmine scent. And sweetbox (Sarcococca species)—master of disguise—its tiny, powerfully fragrant flowers hidden beneath orderly evergreen leaves. If you have ever been out walking in January and caught a whiff of alluring fragrance but couldn’t find the orchid you believed it must be from, it was probably sweet box.

Why such lovely fragrance in winter? It seems a waste that these powerful scents should only be enjoyed in passing—no one lingers long in a winter garden—which is why they are often deftly placed near pathways and entrances. Just as we garden visitors and passersby are stopped in our tracks by such attractive scents, so too are pollinators.

Less active in the colder months, pollinators must be coaxed from their refuges with solid promises, not hints, that their efforts will be rewarded. Since these plants cannot afford showy blossoms with tender, vibrant petals that would shrivel in the cold, they opt for smaller, stouter blooms and bold scent that travels far, sending its pledge into the thin winter air.

Our native pollinators have different habits than those in the home ranges of these species. These plants are visitors, specimens for ornamental gardens, grown for the gardener’s pleasure, largely senseless to our own ecosystem. And though I had come to study horticulture through concurrent interests in native plant restoration and food growing, they were my unexpected first love in this new place and the subsequent gardens, traditions and skills it would offer me. Each January, their superfluous perfume reignites that affection.