|(I don't need to tell you this is Honeysuckle, do I?)|
In the winter months, while waiting for the garden to wake up, there's something really special about the scent of flowers on the breeze or in the still of an evening. It's there to attract pollinators and is particularly helpful to bumblebees who start to wake up in January and need to stock up their food reserves.
I've been thinking about scent in the garden since being asked to advise on a bare patch of earth destined to become a front garden. The client is a florist who wants her garden to be welcoming and uplifting whether viewed from the street or indoors. So my recommendations will encompass scent, colour, movement and seasonal interest. I then read that Sue, author of Backlane Notebook blog, and Louise 'Wellywoman' Curley were proposing a monthly round up post of the scent in our gardens. Open to all, join in! Wellywoman's first post is here.
I headed outside to see what was scenting the air locally. There are two stands of Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' in the gardens here - a shrub well-known for its subtle scent and pretty flower clusters in the middle of winter. I say "subtle" but at times I've been able to get a whiff from a good five paces away.
|Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'|
There's also some ancient honeysuckle snaking through an overgrown Hebe - I think it's Japanese honeysuckle which is supposed to flower in summer but I found a few blossoms among the evergreen leaves and quickly snipped those for a vase indoors. They're wilting after five days but even now I can catch a whiff as I walk past.
But an unusual winter niff, at least from these gardens, is from Petasites fragrans. Popularly known as Winter Heliotrope and related to Sweet Coltsfoot and Butterburr, it's more commonly found on roadsides and woodland verges. It's perennial and non-native, being introduced to the UK as a garden plant back in 1806 when George III was still our monarch. By 1835, it had escaped from gardens into the wild. I only found out what it was last year thanks to an article in the RHS magazine on scented winter flowers.
The flower spikes are about ten inches high and only really look good for a few days but get up close, or pick a few for a small vase, and their sweet scent is revealed. I've read that they smell like vanilla or honey. As a keen baker, I have to disagree - to me, they smell sweet, like baby talc. If the colour soft pink had a smell, this would be it.
But that's it - its one and only season of interest. In these gardens, the flower spikes start to appear in late December and the flowers - small tubular clusters - show up in early January. The leaves are soft, bright green and shaped like lily pads but even those will be blackened or mottled by a sharp frost. The plant spreads by underground rhizomatous roots and there's my problem. It's quietly invasive and hard to get rid of except with some determination and a lot of digging.
It dominates one of the raised borders here and is earmarked to go. So far it's been left alone because it provides dense ground cover until I'm ready to use the space but I've noticed that it's spread along under the Hebe where it usefully grows in shade. I suspect it's providing cover for a host of over wintering bugs and bumbles so I'll relocate some when (or if) I dig it up. It would make a good alternative to ivy in a lightly shaded garden, I think, but it grows to the detriment of other plants nearby.
|I think I mentioned that it spreads easily …|
I have no idea why it's growing in the gardens here - I can't imagine anyone deliberately choosing to plant it and I'm fairly certain you can't buy it - but it does provide a rich source of early nectar for bumblebees. Because bumbles are warm-blooded they can fly in cooler winter temperatures (unlike the honeybee) so an early source of food for them is vital - especially if you want your veg pollinated in due course. They can fly up to six miles from the nest site so it's in the gardener's best interest to ensure they stick around by providing a good source of nectar. In her book 'The Natural Gardener', Val Bourne says that they have a preference for tubular flowers - foxgloves, aconitums and nepetas being their favourites. It seems that Petasites might be more friend than foe.
PS. Don't think my search for winter scent stopped at home; next up, Daphne bholua and the winter walk at Wisley.