January flowers in your French garden with scented viburnum

We explore the shrub that gives long-lasting winter displays and the importance of Latin names

Cathy Thompson’s own viburnum gives a floral display in frosty weather
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I would love to take a walk at the Welsh garden of Bodnant this January – just for the scent of some of its most famous offspring, the three cultivars that form the hybrid group Viburnum x bodnantense: ‘Dawn’, ‘Deben’ and ‘Charles Lamont’.

For winter scent and long-lasting floral display (although it does get knocked back a little in frost), they are tops.

Ask your local population of Peacock butterflies: in fine weather they will be found feeding on a Bodnantense from early February.

Read more: Mediterranean garden in south of France is a winter paradise

Happy in most soils

This group of plants is unassuming – twiggy and uninteresting during the summer months, so best kept to a wildish shrub border – but they step forward into the limelight during December, January and February, teaming perfectly with red-stemmed dogwoods, willows and a carpet of purple hellebores.

An added bonus: they settle happily on most soils and in most positions, although full sun to dappled shade are preferred.

They only slowly reach their three-metre height and spread after 10 to 20 years and their rather unprepossessing profiles are easily disguised if they are forced to rub shoulders with hazel, forsythia and other late winter to spring-flowering shrubs in an informal setting.

Make more to maximise the joy in such positions: they are easily propagated from softwood cuttings, 10 to 25cm long, taken in mid-spring after flowering.

Read more: Gardening in France: Dianthus or pinks are a classic passalong cutting

Weird personal link to famous gardener

Although the hybridisation programme between V. farreri and V. grandiflorum that gave rise to these winter beauties was originally the brainchild of a gardener called Charles Lamont at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, it was Charles Puddle (second in a line of three famous Bodnant head gardeners), who actually birthed V. x bodnantense.

Don’t laugh, this line of Puddles were weighty, important characters in the twentieth century horticultural world – they now have their own memorial garden at Bodnant.

I have a weird personal link to this famous Puddle, since one of my mentors when I was a botanic garden trainee was a devilish old gardener called Fred who had been apprenticed to Charles back in the late 1940s.

‘Viburnum reminds me of naughty Fred’

Fred would pass many happy hours with me, pricking out and reminiscing about Bodnant in its Lord Aberconway heyday, when the large gardening team would think nothing of transplanting a massive azalea just a few metres.

Less inspirational to a young gardener such as myself – but much funnier – he also had a host of stories about how he and the other apprentices would defy the Puddle authority, sneaking naps in the glasshouses and evading work at all cost.

As I enjoy ‘Charles Lamont’ (which has the brightest pink flowers of the triumvirate) this January, I’m reminded not just of Bodnant and its famous Puddles, but also of naughty Fred.

(I try to forget his ‘personal’ chemical cupboard, kept locked, but whose contents nevertheless managed to escape in small threatening puffs. Less said about the toxic cocktail of chemicals to which those heroic early twentieth gardeners were addicted, the better.)

‘People in white coats have done it again’

They’ve gone and done it again. Those ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’ – the people in white coats who like to ‘lump’ loads of different plant genera together, or the others who like to ‘split’ them into increasingly smaller groups, using hairline differences.

They’ve been at it since I was a horticultural student, but with the advance of genetics in the study of botany their meddling has gathered pace.

I guess I’m a bit behind the times, having only just noticed that as long ago as 2019 rosemary slipped quietly from its own genus into Salvia and is now Salvia rosmarinus.

Clarity on plant’s DNA

Was it because of Covid that I missed out on this earth-shattering news?

But, finally, in autumn 2022, I caught up. Read the Head of Horticultural Taxonomy at the Royal Horticultural Society’s apologetic words on the subject: “We understand everyone involved in gardening finds name changes difficult, especially when they relate to popular and widely grown garden plants such as rosemary. However, we cannot ignore what science is telling us and clarity on a plant’s DNA helps us to better understand its growth habits and cultural needs.”

Latin is indispensable in horticulture

I know that many of you out there are profound refusers of Latin names.

But as someone who has worked more than once in foreign botanic gardens, I can assure you that Latin is indispensable if we want to have meaningful conversations with horticultural friends from other countries.

In fact, the common name ‘rosemary’ doesn’t really pose too many problems: it could pass in Spanish (romero), French (romarin) or Italian (rosmarino).

But try using souci – the French word for marigold – in Germany where it is known as Ringelblumen.

I guess, because I am someone completely committed to ‘talking plants’ in Latin, I just have to ‘suck it up’ (as the Americans love to say). And I can be reassured by the information that if Rosmarinus had continued to be recognised as a genus, this would have necessitated changing the name of over 700 Salvia species; whereas, if rosemary slips quietly into ‘salvia-dom’, we are looking at only 15 little earth tremors.

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