There are plants with "four-season interest"- and others that are unremarkable but for one outstanding trait. Wintersweet falls into that second category. It stands as an ordinary shrub in spring, summer and fall. But it blooms in midwinter and scents entire yards with its intoxicating perfume. Never heard of it? Not surprisng, really. Nurseries that depend on impulse buyers are disinclined to feature wintersweet. After all, it only struts its stuff when all the gardeners are huddled home by the fireplace with noses buried in seed catalogs.
A lone blossom on wintersweet in February 2013 promises bliss in future years. Below, pictures show foliage, flowers, fresh pods, and dried seeds from a mature bush in the garden of DG subscriber Gitagal.
Fortunately, those buried noses come out in warm weather to talk and trade plants. Wintersweet travels by word of mouth; its lovely winter scent is hard to resist and hard to keep to oneself. Because of this, I now have a young wintersweet, just coming into its own in what is one of the coldest, sloppiest winters we've had in a while. Five years ago, I planted seeds that a fellow DG gardener shared from her large specimen. Though I never smelled the parent shrub, I did sniff just one bloom on mine last winter. The scent was as wonderful as she had claimed it to be.
Wintersweet (Chimonanthes praecox) originates in China, where it is a beloved plant. It has been cultivated there for hundreds of years, and is popular in gardens there. Chinese folk medicine utilizes wintersweet's flowers to treat various respiratory ailments. The flowers are also used in herbal teas and potpourris. The plant's essential oils are used in the cosmetic industry, and researchers are studying the plant for other uses. Wintersweet belongs to the family Calycanthaceae. This same family gives us the long-beloved, American, spring-blooming fragrant shrub, Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus.) Their similar familial traits include their leaf shape and texture, coarse upright growth habit, and their waxy petals.
Wintersweet traveled throguhout Asia centuries ago, and eventually to the Western world. It appears in a British botanical magazine from 1799. Apparantly, British growers were already actively sharing this deligthful 'new' shrub. 'Lutea' is a cultivar you'll find at some nurseries, though that plant is not greatly different from the species.
Wintersweet is easy to grow and hardy to about 10 degrees F, or zone 6. It is a large deciduous shrub bearing paired, long oval leaves. Upright stems can grow a meter or more in their first year, later branching and filling out the shrub. The leaves endure early frosts, turn gold to yellow, and drop late in fall as the flower buds form. Those buds, bearing olfactory treasure, wait patiently for promising days in late winter. When they open, the scent pours forth. Plant lover Lucile Whitman of Whitman Farms says "I feel its sweetness to my toes."
Give this shrub average soil and a full to part sun exposure. Its coarse texture might best serve as a backdrop for showier specimens in spring or summer. Consider accompanying the wintersweet with fine textured grasses, dark evergreens, or colorful annuals and perennials. Then when the summer show is long gone, wintersweet's perfume will lift your spirits.
To get a wintersweet, turn to the internet or mail order sources, or find a friend who has one. Wintersweet can be grown from seed or layered stems. Seeds are easily gathered from the large bumpy pods. Seed grown plants might take over a dozen years to bloom, according to some sources (mine is bearing a dozen buds in its fifth year.) Your local nursery may not stock this shrub, but perhaps they will order it for you. Dave's Garden PlantScout can help you locate mail order suppliers of wintersweet (or almost any other plant your heart desires.)
Resources and credits
Photo credits to Gitagal; enlargeable versions are in Dave's Garden PlantFiles. Much credit and sincere thanks go to Gitagal, without whom I would not have heard of this shrub, much less come to posess one.
Here are sources for Wintersweet in Dave's Garden PlantScout ( http://davesgarden.com/products/ps/go/59458/ )