Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Winter Scent

It's dull out there.  Freezing cold, grey, damp.  The sort of weather that penetrates any clothing and turns the ungloved hands of the photographer into frozen talons clumsily fumbling with the dials.  And yet there are things to enjoy...
A walk through wooded gardens may reveal the great saviours of the winter scene - small trees or large shrubs flowering despite the low temperatures, and, given the lack of any insects, unnaccountably perfuming the air.  The best for lightly wooded areas or woodland margins are the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis sp.) and the Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). 
The witch hazels, native to Asia and eastern North America produce their scented spidery flowers on bare branches in the cold months.  The species, H. mollis (top right) produces sulphur yellow flowers with deep magenta in the heart.  Varieties of H. x intermedia offer a greater colour range, and for me these are the more interesting.  'Jelena' (bottom left) opens from red-tinged buds into wonderfully coppery flowers, the petals subtly edged in yellow and becoming orange towards the purply centre of the flower; 'Winter Beauty' (bottom right) is paler, but with equally sophisticated colour combinations of bronze and burnt-orange.  The curious scent hangs in the air on a still day, and a grove of these terrific plants make a magnificent addition to a large garden or woodland path.  Their other great contribution is in autumn, when the vibrantly coloured leaves light up the understorey before falling.
The flowers of Chimonanthus praecox (top left) are equally fascinating.  A native of China, the shrub produces its flowers in the same way as the hazels, on naked stems, and as in the hazels the flowers have wonderful scent and deep purple hearts.  However the wintersweet flower is made up of strangely waxy petals, speckled minutely with the purple, hanging demurely from the twigs.  A much less demonstrative flower visually than the miniature fireworks of the witch hazel, the scent is no less beguiling, and this enigmatic plant is a worthy addition if you have the space.  Whereas witch hazels can have visual impact over a short distance, I would tend to grow the wintersweet near a shady doorway, where its fragrant pale lemon flowers can be enjoyed more easily during their season.
If these shrubs are well-established, there is nothing better in the darkest days of winter than to bring a few flowering stems indoors - the extra warmth will intensify the perfume and be some consolation for the inconveniences of the weather.
A note on the photographs:
I use a Nikon DSLR, and these images were taken using a 105mm macro lens.  With a wide aperture to help capture the photograph in low light, the depth of field is also reduced hugely, allowing the blurred backgrounds and highly selective areas of focus that I love in these types of close-up.


  1. Love witch hazels and they're one of the few plants I have no experience growing.
    A current favorite that I do love is Corylus 'Rote Zeller' a red leaf filbert, which does not produce nuts but has charming catkins.

  2. Dear Paul, A fascinating and informative post on these often overlooked shrubs accompanied, as is usually the case with you, by some captivating and atmospheric photographs.

    Your suggestion for placing the wintersweet near a doorway is a good one. Where space is restricted, then I should suggest Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna with its clusters of creamy white flowers which at this time of year are deliciously fragrant.

  3. I agree with you on the Sarcococca, Edith - terrific fragrance, but a bit less dramatic visually. Thanks for your kind comments!

  4. aloha paul,

    beautiful tips and read on the scented blooms, i enjoyed it tremendously