In the short dark days of winter, we hope for some extra cheer from our gardens. The bonus comes when you get a sweetly scented flowering shrub which gives of it’s best in the middle of winter. Here are a few of my favourites:

Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis and H. intermedia) has one of the best scents – a sweet, spicy and strong fragrance – that will be produced by any hamamelis and which will happily grow in sunshine with moist soil at their roots. Cut branches keep well in water, so that they can be enjoyed indoors. The flowers range from yellow, through orange to deep red and flower anytime from December onwards, flowering on bare wood. The other bonus with these shrubs is that the leaves colour well in autumn, which gives them a valuable extra seasonal focus. There are many different varieties available, perhaps the choice should be made according to the colour of the flowers. They grow in height and spread to 1.8 – 3m.


Mahonia media v. Charity is an evergreen shrub which develops fragrant bright yellow racemes of flowers (20cm long) in late autumn to midwinter. This fully hardy shrub prefers full sun to light shade and growing best in moist soil, a woodland setting is perfect. It has a height and spread of 2.5 – 4m, needing little attention throughout the year. The leaves comprise numerous spiney – toothed dark green leaves, which are useful for Christmas decorations.


Sarcococca confusa (Christmas Box) is the sweetest scent of all and can make you catch your breath, it is so sweet. The flowers are very small, whitish green and it is almost unbelievable that so much scent can be produced. The leaves are narrow, shiny and long and the plant is evergreen, which gives it extra points for structure in the garden. Equally, Sarcococca is quite often seen as a low hedge, as it needs very little attention through the year and this delightful fragrance in winter. Ideally it likes leafy woodland type soil, so add plenty of leaf mould when initially planting. Within the species there is a variety which is more suitable for small gardens, this is Sarcocca hookeriana var digyna. It is more compact than S. confusa and is also suitable as a small shrub for a large winter tub. 

Sarcococca confusa

Lonicera fragrantissima, this is one of the winter flowering honeysuckles with pale yellow almost ivory, sweetly scented flowers. This is not suitable for a small garden as it is a fairly vigorous shrub and rather dull throughout the rest of the year, however if you can forgive it all that, the winter flowers are gorgeous. The flowers come in any milder period of weather from December through to mid-spring although they stand up well to any light to moderate frosts. Lonicera fragrantissima is suitable for all soil types and whilst it likes light to medium shade, it will also do well in full sun. Lonicera purpusii is very similar but is even more vigorous than fragrantissima, it has larger leaves but fewer flowers. 


Then just at the end of winter, as if to herald spring, Daphne odora comes into flower and the scent from this is to be experienced. It is said to be difficult to establish but I have never had any problems with it although they can be short lived (8-10 years).

There are a wide range to Daphnes for different positions in the garden and of divergent sizes and shapes. They all have wonderfully scented flowers and are worth finding a spot for in the garden. It is a small evergreen bush with clusters of pink and white flowers from late winter to early spring. Daphne odora, also has a variety with a yellow edge to the leaf which makes it more interesting in the border, for the rest of the year. Daphne odora v. aureomarginata has its pinkish purple flowers in tight clusters in early spring. Daphne odoras like full sun or partial shade and do their best flowering when placed in a sheltered position. They like moisture retentive but well drained soil. All the love and attention you can bestow will be rewarded with the most glorious fragrance and will be thoroughly worthwhile.

Daphne odora Aureomarginata

When you have contemplated the space you have for a highly scented winter flowering shrub, they are best placed where you can easily push your face into the plant and drink in the fabulous scent, especially if you have only dashed outside for the purpose. It helps if they are at the edge of your border or beside a path which you frequently use. Gardens can reward us with flowers and scent in the darkest days.