Gardening: For the love of a fine fragrance

Aromatherapists have long extolled the benefits of different fragrances for improving mood and wellbeing says Elly West, so try to include scented plants in your garden design, near the areas where you want to sit and relax

I’ve just done some cutting back in my garden. Not too much, as I love to leave the more architectural perennials standing for as long as possible, but enough to rediscover some heroes of the winter garden. Tucked in among the seed heads and dead leaves of achilleas, sedums and ornamental grasses, are small and stately Sarcococca confusa bushes, otherwise known as sweet box. They sit there, largely forgotten during summer while the overflowing borders are doing their thing, but in winter the glossy leaves provide backbone and structure, while the small white flowers send out the most amazing fragrance.

It’s moments like these that remind me there is more to winter than frozen soil, bare stems and scraping the car windscreen on an icy morning. And it’s this combination of good looks and fragrance that is all the more precious right now when there aren’t as many distractions outside. These delicious wafts of perfume are so welcome during this dark month, and now is the time to enjoy the most highly fragranced flowers as they compete for the scarce pollinating insects tough enough to go out foraging on a cold day.

Our sense of smell is extremely powerful and aromatherapists have long extolled the benefits of different fragrances for improving our mood and wellbeing. A strong scent can instantly bring back a forgotten memory, and floral notes are the most popular in the perfume industry. For this reason, I nearly always try to include scented plants in my garden designs near the areas where clients want to sit and relax. Admittedly, this is easier in summer when roses, lavender and lilies are in full bloom and, to be fair, we are probably not doing much sitting outside during the winter months, but we can still enjoy fragrant plants by placing them near paths and walkways, or in pots next to the front door.

Winter flowers are often small and insignificant, evolving this way so that they don’t get destroyed by bad weather, but this encourages us to interact with our garden – to get outside and take a closer look – which is another good reason to grow them in a prominent spot that you’ll be walking past regularly.

Sweet box is perhaps my favourite plant for winter scent. It can be grown as a hedge and makes a good alternative to regular box – Latin name Buxus sempervirens – as it’s not susceptible to blight. With its rounded, shiny leaves and compact, slow-growing habit, it also makes a great centrepiece in a winter pot surrounded with winter pansies or cyclamen. The small white flowers pack a powerful fragrance, and it also has attractive black, shiny berries. Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is another choice variety that has slightly longer, graceful leaves, combined with pink-red stems and pinkish-white flowers followed by clusters of berries.

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ has one of the strongest fragrances – sweetly intense and sherbet-like, you’ll smell the pale pink flowers before you see them. It also has the benefit of evergreen leaves that are delicately edged with gold. It’s compact and very slow growing, so is another good specimen for a pot where it can happily live for years. These daphnes don’t like root disturbance and will appreciate a sheltered spot in sun or partial shade to thrive. Snip a few of the blooms off and bring them inside and you’ll have visitors hunting for the source of the gorgeous perfume.

The stately Sarcococca confusa, otherwise known as sweet box – largely forgotten during summer but providing backbone in winter

The clue is in the name with wintersweet – Chimonanthus praecox – which is next on my list of plants to grow for the best winter scent. Originally from China, this deciduous shrub is good for training against a sunny, sheltered wall, where it will eventually reach around two metres or more in height and spread. Although it’s not the most exciting plant in summer, the bowl-shaped flowers appear on the bare stems in winter and will light up the garden with their pale lemon petals and dark red centres. The scent is alluringly spicy and the flowers last well into spring.

Witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, is another deciduous shrub that has great autumn colour followed by bright golden flowers like little spidery creatures clinging to the bare winter stems. The scent is strong, slightly citrus, and the stems are good for cutting and bringing indoors. It’s an upright, tough shrub that can cope with cold conditions, and works well in a woodland setting or next to a path where its scent can be enjoyed. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’ is one of my favourite varieties – the flowers are gorgeous tones of terracotta and burnt orange.

As well as shrubs, there are plenty of smaller winter-flowering perennials that offer colour and fragrance – a worthwhile combination if you’re planting up winter pots. Get close to Cyclamen coum and their pink, white and purple jewel-like flowers are surprisingly aromatic. They’re happy in shade, so are also good planted en masse beneath deciduous trees. There are also varieties of primroses and polyanthus bred for scent, including Polyanthus ‘Most Scented’. Try too, winter iris – Iris unguicularis – which has strappy leaves and deep violet, fragrant flowers in late winter and early spring.

Winter flowering deciduous shrubs should be pruned in spring after flowering, giving them time to grow new buds for next year. If you prune them too late, you may lose a year of flowers. Evergreen shrubs such as sweet box will need minimal pruning – again this is best done in spring before the growth properly gets going, but after the worst of the frosts are over, just trimming off any dead or dying growth, crossing stems, or to keep the size in check.

So if there’s not much going on in your garden at the moment, make room for some winter fragrance, whether it’s in the borders or a pot by the front door. You may well forget these useful plants during the rest of the year but will welcome them with open arms (and nostrils) when the chillier months come round again.

• Elly West is a garden designer. For more details, visit

Featured image: Hamamelis virginiania blooming in snow. Winter flowers are often small and insignificant, evolving this way so that they don’t get destroyed by bad weather