In the Garden:
Middle South
December, 2009
Regional Report

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'Peggy Clark' Japanese flowering apricot greets each new year with thousands of rosy, cup-shaped flowers.

Lift Winter Doldrums with Trio of Fragrant Plants

A wise gardening friend once told me, "Naming a favorite plant is like choosing a favorite child -- senseless and impossible when you love them all." In my garden, this is especially true during the inhospitable months of winter, when a trio of fragrant plants chase away the blues with their sweet perfumes.

Sometimes flowering as early as mid-December, winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) replaces the garden's dank smell of wet earth and decaying leaves with the enticing scent of sugared lemons. Aptly described by the its more fanciful common name, Sweet Breath of Spring, the shrub's powerful fragrance fills the garden with the slightest breeze.

Semi-evergreen to deciduous in the Middle South, the plant is characterized by wild and wayward branches that sprawl about in an unruly manner. Among the shrub's yellowing foliage, its tiny, creamy-white flowers bloom in pairs along the stems.

The delicate blooms are killed by periods of extreme cold, but winter honeysuckle always has new buds ready to open during mild weather. On warm winter days, bees flock to the fragrant blooms, and I often observe them filling their pollen baskets and sipping nectar from the flowers. My shrub sometimes flowers into March, displaying ruby-red fruits next to its blossoms.

Winter honeysuckle grows quickly in sunny to partly shady locations with regular moisture. When mature, it stands eight feet tall and wide.

Not to be outdone, a second fragrant plant, Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) opens its spicy-scented flowers in early January. Located in a mostly sunny spot, the cultivar 'Peggy Clark' greeted the new year with thousands of rosy, cup-shaped flowers, each accented with a red calyx and oodles of extra-long stamens.

Many cultivars of this small tree grow successfully in our region. Another favorite, 'Rosemary Clark', displays semi-double, snow-white blooms, while 'Bonita' has deep red, double flowers.

In general, the Japanese flowering apricot is longer lived, tougher, and more trouble-free than many other flowering fruit trees. Most types grow into a picturesque, upright form that is 20 feet tall and wide. Small inedible fruits follow its early-winter flowers.

The tree is cold hardy to zone 6 and grows rapidly, up to several feet a year. It prefers full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil with regular or moderate moisture.

Although named for Japan, the country where it was first found in cultivation by Europeans, the tree is native to China. There, the plant is known as mei, or plum, and joins the pine and the bamboo as one of the three friends of winter.

Completing the fragrant trio in my garden is winter daphne (Daphne odora), a compact shrub that opens its scented blooms in late January and early February. Planted in my woodland garden, the cultivar 'Aureomarginata Alba' sparkles among the leafless trees with clusters of pure white flowers and variegated foliage.

All species of daphne require excellent drainage, cool soil, watering during dry spells, and protection from sun and wind, but winter daphne is especially persnickety. Plant it several inches above the natural soil level in a location with early sun and afternoon shade. Take care to amend heavy earth with a porous mix of soil and compost, then add a living ground cover to keep its roots cool.

Where it thrives, winter daphne is a tidy and handsome evergreen plant, usually growing to about 4 feet tall and wide. Narrow leaves are thick and glossy and its winter-blooming flowers form nosegay clusters at the tip of each branch that permeate the landscape with a heady perfume, much like an orange blossom.

Winter honeysuckle, Japanese flowering apricot, and winter daphne grace my winter landscape with a season-long panorama of beautiful blooms and fabulous scents. If you add them to your garden, grow them near a bench or pathway where you can admire them often, and be sure to snip branches to be enjoyed inside the home. When feeling especially generous, share a bough or two with friends, especially those who overlook the beauty of the winter garden.


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