The Blooming & Fragrant Winter Garden

When you take a walk through the neighborhood (if the winter weather is pleasant enough) you may come across beautiful blooms and fragrant wonders.

Low-growing plants like hellebores and heather can be found in shades of pink, maroon, or white, underneath or in between taller plants.

Shrubs like camellia, witch hazel, fragrant sweet box, and daphne are fabulous blooming shrubs that stand out in the winter garden with either their colorful blooms, or sweet fragrance.

We’re here to help you find those winter blooms, and highlight a few that we love. You may even determine that you need one in your own garden!

Winter Heaths

Consistent durability, year-round leaves, long-lasting bright flowers – few plants match the appeal of heaths and heathers. The difference between the various sorts of heathers and heaths are important to plant geeks and botanists, but most gardeners simply refer to the entire category broadly as “heathers”.

While all varieties are wonderful additions to the landscape, of particular value are the winter-blooming heaths.

Heathers offer dense blooms of small bell-shaped flowers in colors ranging from white to light pink to bright magenta. The flowering period of the winter heaths is particularly long: about four months, with individual varieties blooming November to March, December to April, or January to May.

Plant winter heaths in full or nearly full sun, in well-drained soil. Most prefer at least occasional summer water. Size can vary – some are quite low and rather slow-spreading, but many often reach 2-3 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide; and a rare few, the “tree heathers”, are more upright shrubs exceeding 4 feet in both height and spread.

Fragrant Sweet Box

Just after the New Year begins, we are graced with the lovely fragrance exuding from the white flowers on the Sarcococca ‘Sweet Box’ shrub. However, its flowers are hard to spot due to the glossy evergreen leaves hiding most of them.

There are several varieties of sweet box:

Tall Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia) is the earliest to bloom by a couple of weeks; it is an arching upright shrub to 4-5 ft. tall and 3-4 ft. wide, and the flowers are followed by red berries.

The groundcover form, Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, reaches 1 to 3 ft. tall and slowly spreads to 3 ft. wide or more, with berries of black.

A new release, Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Fragrant Valley’, is an improved form of the lower type, with a shorter and more consistent habit (18 inches tall by 3 feet wide), a faster growth rate, and slightly smaller and denser leaves making for a nice full look.

The flowering period is usually 4 to 5 weeks. Berries for all types are not usually listed as poisonous, but are not recommended for consumption. In fact, even most birds ignore the berries. All forms of sweet box need partial or full shade and pretty good drainage – they are one of the better landscaping options for deep shade.

Winter Daphne

The Winter Daphne is a sensational performer in the landscape because of its clusters of highly scented flowers that bloom in late winter to early spring.

Daphne odora, also known as winter daphne, varies in leaf color from bold green to variegated yellow-green but all varieties have a distinctive scent.

This medium sized shrub grows best in part sun to dappled sun, preferring morning sun and afternoon shade. If a daphne is planted where there is too much afternoon sun, the leaves can burn. Provide well-draining soil that stays moderately moist through the summer. Amend the soil with lime to create a neutral pH for best performance.

Winter Protection Tips

Plants with thick, succulent broad-leaf evergreen foliage are most susceptible to damage.

Flowering plants that mature their flower buds over the winter, such as rhododendrons, can also take damage to the flowers during severe cold events, even if the foliage is hardy.  New, young plants are also more tender; provide protection with a mulch and lightweight row cover material, or use heavier material as a windbreak to reduce dehydration.

Here is a partial list of plants that are worth giving some protection:

Star Jasmine Vine
Sarcococca, Fragrant Sweetbox
Bay Laurel (Sweet Bay)
Winter Daphne
Phormium, New Zealand Flax
Some Salvia, Hyssop
Hardy Fuchsias