Even on the bleakest winter’s day scented winter flowering shrubs can brighten up your garden and gladden your heart. Evergreen shrubs give a garden a sense of structure, especially when silhouetted in snow or by a heavy frost, while variegated leaves can often appear to glow in the rays of the weak sun, showing up well against a dark background. Plant shrubs with fragrant flowers where you will benefit from their presence, perhaps along a path or close to an outside door.
The soil in your garden will determine which shrubs can be grown easily, for example Hamamelis and Pieris can only be grown on acidic soils. My own garden is heavily alkaline, with a mixture of clay, chalk and flint which can prove to be problematic at times. The following are some of the shrubs which seem to do well here despite their environment.
Euonymus fortunei Silver Queen
The creamy white variegation has a wonderfully wintery appearance. It can be kept clipped to produce a more formal bush, or allowed to go its own way. It is very tolerant of different situations and soils and can be used as a climber if planted against a wall or near a tree. For golden variegation tinged bronzy pink by cold, try the smaller growing Euonymus fortunei Emerald ‘n’ Gold.
This is commonly known as wintersweet and is an alternative to Hamamelis for those gardening on alkaline soil. It is very slow growing and takes seems to take several years before it decides to bloom. Its yellow flowers appear on bare branches at this time of year, but I would have to describe their scent as extremely subtle: you need to press your nose up against the flower and really breathe in deeply to appreciate the scent.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna
Usually known as Christmas box, this plant originates from Asia and is a member of the box family. It is a useful but quite slow growing plant which can be used in the toughest situations and is particularly good in shade. It will eventually grow up to about a metre in height, with clump forming suckering stems. It has elegant pointed small green leaves, and at this time of year has sweetly scented white flowers tinged with pink. Later in the year black berries appear. Other varieties include Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca ruscifolia and Sarcococca humilis.
Ilex aquifolium Ferox Argentea
Otherwise known as the silver hedgehog holly, this is too prickly for picking, so not suitable for making wreaths or other Christmas decorations, but the creamy white variegation can brighten up a dull spot in the garden. It is a male holly so won’t produce any berries. Technically speaking most hollies are dioecious which means you need both a male and a female to produce any fruit, the berries being produced on the female plant.
Elaeagnus pungens Maculata
A fast growing useful evergreen shrub extremely tolerant of all situations. It is another plant with small insignificant white and supposedly scented flowers over the winter, sometimes with sharp spines hidden along the branches. As with all variegated shrubs, you need to keep an eye out for any reversion back to plain green, and cut it out straight away. I love it for being easy to grow, easy to prune, and in particular because it looks as if someone has come along with a paint brush and marked all the leaves in beautiful watercolours.
The shrubby honeysuckle on the other hand can be smelled from quite a distance away and can be used as cut flowers indoors, but I find it always seems a bit of a tangled mess of brittle looking stems in winter, and unfortunately it is very dull in the summer when other plants are needed to perk it up. It might be worth trying a small clematis through it for colour later in the year though.
Pittosporum tenuifolium Garnetii
A plant originating from New Zealand and usually described as half-hardy, it seems to manage even in the coldest winters, like the present one, although perhaps I have been lucky. It has small light green leaves with an irregular white margin, which become tinged with pink during the winter, later followed by tiny insignificant flowers and berries. It is useful for making Christmas decorations and wreaths as it takes a while before it gets floppy.