In the Winter of Life

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David Stuart
describes some of the delights of a garden in winter


The other day, pushing our way through the sere and brittle stems of a jungle of Polygonum and nettle, I was talking to someone eagerly facing both a first Scottish winter and a first Scottish garden. Beneath the soggy brown leaves, and all along the stream bank (I was deeply envious), were vast clumps of snowdrop bulbs, all a-sprout and awaiting spring. Though that's only ten or twelve weeks away, there was nothing much going on in the garden now.

It needed, somewhere, a 'deep winter ' garden, not necessarily with the usual winter standbys like the lovely Chimonanthus, or the various witch-hazels (Hamamelis), both really early flowering bushes of spring. Many of the real winter flowering things have good perfumes; perhaps they have to work harder to attract something to brave the cold and come and pollinate them. Whatever the reason, for the human nose, there's some thing particularly good about the air of a chilly winter morning when it's thick with some delicious perfume. Here, one of the best smells in our less romantic garden (it's that stream that does it), has nothing to do with flowers. To walk past the flowerless violet patch, especially after a light frost, is sheer delight. Whatever wonderful substance it is that makes the flowers so good, must also permeate the leaves, and these, a little damaged by the cold, give up their own scent. I've not yet got down on hands and knees to see if the different varieties vary in their smell - the flowers do ('Amiral Avellan' is one of t he best).

If the little garden had a ground work of violets, it should, if I could find the right sort, also have strawberries. Sir Francis Bacon, no less, thought that the yellowed leaves of early winter strawberries smelt delicious. We've got strawberry leaves yellowing all over the place, and in all shapes, sizes, species and dates, yet none do to my nose what they clearly did to his E lizabethan one. To mine they all smell of compost.

I can, though, just detect the smell of the hellebore now in flower (H. lividus), an odd sort of pinky grey-green that sets lovers of indeterminate colours back on their heels. The plant's not supposed to be fully hardy, and we'd been coddling it overwinter in a conservatory until last season we forgot to take its pot indoors. It survived, so now it's planted in a border. It needs a warm day for its honey smell to be at all strong, something that may perhaps be true of another supposedly scented hellebore, now with pale green bracts hiding the young flower buds (it was a favourite of Gertrude Jekyll's, and she should have known).

For a really powerful winter smell, there's nothing to beat the mahonias related to M . japonica and some of the viburnums. Here, M. japonica is already in flower, with its slanting spikes of pendant soft yellow flowers smelling strongly of some thing in between laburnum and lilac. Some of the leaflets, burnished like holly leaves, are such a dark purplish green that they look like the steel scales on samurai armour.

Mahonai japonica, part of a group of species that hybridise easily, has endless garden forms. The one called 'Charity' is good, with narrower leaves and sharper yellow flowers, though it's a couple of weeks away from flowering. Some hybrids have no smell whatever – so don't bother with them.

If you feel like oranges, try Choisia ternata, some of whose many forms have white flowers that smell accurately of orange blossom. It needs the shelter of a wall, for the lovely foliage, pungent and wildly inflammable, can get badly wind-blasted.

Almonds and vanilla are mixed in the smell from lovely things like Viburnum farreri, with hybrids like 'Bodnantense' and 'Dawn'. All are popular, easy, and slosh perfume around with abandon (a few twigs in a vase will do your nose good indoors too). While there are rarities to be had, like the divine V. foetens, usually with pure white flowers, common things like the laurustinus are slipping out of use. That's a shame, for it makes a good evergreen hedge with glossy, bay-like leaves, and the rounded trusses of flowers are almost too powerfully scented for comfort.

Then, surprisingly, there are the ivies; I know a lane in Somerset which w ill, by now, smell divine. I first thought, as it runs through a grand estate, that there must be some astonishing and grand plant growing out of sight behind the drystone dyke. There wasnt. What I could smell, on winter afternoon walks, was simply the vast masses of ivy flowers along the wall's head. Again, close to, the smell is pretty awful. If there can be no wall, then why not hunt for some of the 'tree' ivies, actually part of the flowering aspect of an ivy, rooted, continuing to flower, yet never again attempting to climb. They could make a handsome edging, though if you wanted colour, try Calaminta nepetoides, s ill covered with nice blue lipped flowers. The leave smell of pennyroyal. So there we are; oranges, vanilla, almonds, lilac, laburnum, mint, honey. Surely that's enough to keep even the most heat-seeking gardener going for the next couple of months?


Copyright david stuart 2004