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Winter scents and sensitivity

From her Vosges garden, Cathy Thompson offers tips to brighten up January

The first mouthfuls of galette des rois at Epiphany (6 January) are exquisite. But by the time it’s still being wheeled out (stale) at the end of January, I’ve had enough! I like plants in season, too: so let nurserymen stop breeding for ‘year-round colour’ and allow each season to sing its own song.

The little Japanese apricot, Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’, starts blooming around the same time as the galette is going stale – and is just as delightful in the anticipation, with its reddish-pink, slightly almond-scented flowers. On reflection, it would probably adapt well to cultivation in a greenhouse pot to ensure January flowers.

Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ is likely to have been in flower since November, even in the open garden. I think what makes these two so special is the vision of the delicate blossoms floating against a dark background, something to bear in mind when planting. And then there are the waxy yellow flowers of Chimonanthus praecox, or wintersweet. Have you ever noticed how many winter flowers are incredibly sweetly scented to attract the occasional brave pollinator?

Chimonanthus is slow-growing, so you need to plan it in at the beginning of your gardening life in a new home. In the north of France it will be best planted against a wall to protect the blossoms from frost. That is, of course, the only catch with winter flowers.

The witch hazels, Hamamelis, are to die for, in terms of scent – the farther south your garden the more you are likely to be able to enjoy their blossoms, also damaged by frost. If you have the space and inclination, nothing could be finer in January than a little witch hazel woodland. My favourites among the many are pale yellow ‘Pallida’, bronzey-red ‘Jelena’ and deep red ‘Diane’. Beware bullfinches, however – witch hazel buds are their favourite food.

The Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, deserves more kudos. The tiny yellow flowers are insignificant, belying the powerful scent they will waft your way in January. It is much more tolerant of position and soil than are the witch hazels, which do best in slightly acid conditions. Often planted in a shady spot, they give a much better crop of berries in an open, sunny position – and they make delicious jam and jelly.

Two scented, winter-flowering honeysuckles, Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera x purpusii, are just as easy to please, although fairly ugly for most of the year, so not for a prime position. Another ‘wafter’ for a less prominent position is Viburnum x bodnantense. I am growing the form ‘Charles Lamont’ and, although I struggle to establish things on the heavy clay of my garden, it has really got its toes in now and I am anticipating a good show of flowers in January 2018, following a 2015 planting.

Do not ignore Sarcococca (sweet box), especially S. confusa: small, amazingly tolerant little shrubs. In January they come into their own, with sweetly scented, tiny white flowers.

I am hoping you have a corner where you are currently enjoying bright red- and yellow-stemmed dogwoods, perhaps with a groundcover of winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and hellebores. H. niger, the ‘Christmas rose’, makes a good cut flower, but you probably need a cloche to protect its pristine white flowers from rain-splashed soil.

It is worth getting a little adventurous with hellebores. I have grown Helleborus x sternii from seed, sown very early in the year with a cold treatment in the fridge, then brought out into the warmth. The combined effect of superb pewter to green foliage and short-stemmed pinky-green flowers is special, although sadly it is unscented. Good for sun and heat, as much as shade.

Closer to soil level is tiny Iris histrioides. You may never have realised that it is scented, however. This September, plant some bulbs in a pot for forcing – then bring them into the house at the last minute before they flower and begin to believe. It is the sweetest thing imaginable from something so tiny. ‘George’ is a deep purple form, while ‘Major’ is a perennial favourite in dark blue. In the open garden they have to be planted fairly deeply, further down than the usual rule of 2x the height of the bulb, otherwise they will break up and refuse to flower again.

If you have not planned the garden to cheer yourself in January, pick up a notebook and start noticing what is happening around you right now… and get ready to get practical in February!

I grow forsythia simply for cutting stems and January forcing in the warmth. You could do the same with the branches of any early-flowering tree, like the Prunus mume ‘Ben-Chidori’ mentioned above.

Cut the old foliage away from Helleborus niger and H. orientalis. Not only does this reduce the incidence of black spot (a fungal disease), it also allows you to enjoy the flowers better. 

Finally – get those apples, pears, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries pruned now, but leave the sweet cherries and plums until spring and summer to avoid risk of fungal infection.


What is your favourite image of the garden in January? Let me know by email what you are enjoying right now, preferably with a photo. And I have had some positive feedback with regard to a seed distribution scheme – I am currently deciding how to set this up, with myself as administer. Would you be prepared to save seed from summer 2018? Email me at

Read Cathy’s blog at

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