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Winter blooms that are heaven scent

By Jackie French
Hyacinth bulbs will bloom this winter if you buy them now. Picture: Shutterstock

Warning: if you don't act now you, your family and friends - possibly even your dog - may be in grave danger of Acute Winter Scentsory Deprivation Syndrome (AWSDS).

The dimness of winter is depressing, so much so that it can trigger a genuine mental condition which I must admit AWSDS is not, or at least it hasn't been recognised as one yet. Medical science has a long way to go. But medical researchers have realised that the loss of summer scents contributes to winter depression, not as much as the lack of sunlight, but enough to be significant.

I'm not necessarily talking about the lack of rose bushes wafting perfume here, or even the temporarily vanished scent of ripening tomatoes. Spring, summer and autumn have a host of background scents most of us rarely notice, but bring joy and comfort to life anyway: bright spring leaves or fading autumn leaves, the musty scent as old bark peels away and fresh bark shines below, the perfume of spring buds and freshly mown grass.

If you want winter perfume, you need to work for it. Two potted bay trees either side of the front door will give you subliminal whiffs every time you pass, as will Malabar limes with their most excellent leaves for cooking, or prostrate rosemary hanging down from baskets just above head height.

A small bunch of daphne is enough to perfume an entire room. Picture: Shutterstock

Many shrubs are gloriously fragrant in winter. They need to be, as there's less heat to carry their essential oils up to waft on the wind. I grow generously scented daphne because my grandmother loved it, but also because a small nosegay on the desk is enough to perfume your entire working day.

Daphne needs dappled shade, moist soil and absolutely perfect drainage. There are now various shades of daphne bloom, from pink and mauve shades to pure white. I stick to the old-fashioned ones I remember from Grandma's, but there's a fairly new variety, Daphne Perfume Princess, that promises blush pink flowers that fade to white and that will give scent from mid-winter well in to spring. It is also said to be the earliest flowering daphne. My elderly old-fashioned daphne begins blooming in early winter, so I reckon it may give the Princess a run for her money. Try both, or even many varieties, and see which you love best. Do not forget to give nosegays of flowers to friends.

If much of your life is spent at your desk, think hyacinths. These giant bulbs will bloom this winter if you buy them now, and can be grown in a vase as long as you plant the bulbs outside as soon as they have finished flowering, then feed the leaves well.

Hyacinth scent travels for metres, but is somehow never overpowering, even if a hyacinth flower sits next to your computer. If you are looking for a gift for your loved one, a few hyacinth bulbs would be perfect to cheer up their entire winter. Like most bulbs, hyacinths will multiply year after year with care. They need cold winters, but our climate has those in abundance. The vase-grown ones may possibly not bloom the next year after the trauma of office life. Have patience, feed the leaves and water regularly, and they will come again. If you ignore them they will probably bloom again and again anyway.

Few gardeners realise that camelias also come in scented varieties. You can buy quite a good range of perfumed camellias from online catalogues, as well as by test sniffing them in the garden centre. Look for names like "Scentuous", a sasanqua camelia with an orange-zest perfume. Camelia breeders advertise the fragrance in the names they give their plants. A hedge of perfumed camelias can be beautiful, fragrant, and also kept wonderfully neatly trimmed, if a neat hedge is your desire and you have time.

Chimonanthus praecox, also known as Wintersweet, with its bright yellow winter flowers is much loved by gardeners both for scent and colour, and yet, for some reason, I've never grown it, even in a garden that is planted more for "let's see how it turns out" rather than beauty.

Brown boronia (Boronia megastigma) is a "native flower", i.e. it grows in Australia, but as it's natural habitat is the south-west of Western Australia, that is a bit like saying Italian gelato belongs to the Hebrides. Brown boronia's flowers are far prettier than the name suggests, but as some strains have been bred to be handsome, not fragrant, smell the shrub before you buy. Brown boronia needs nutrient-poor, well-drained soils, i.e. sloping ground where you will ignore it, except to pick its blooms and sniff as you go past. Brown boronia also hates humidity, so don't plant it in the lawn, especially if you rarely mow. The top of a low-grown rockery would suit it best.

Luckily I planted two Michelia trees about 20 years ago, thinking they were ice-cream bean trees, which is what I had paid for. They now bloom each winter, with scent wafting around the garden. Both trees are about three metres high now, and will eventually grow to about six metres, which means in a decade or so they will need lopping. Michelia doltsopa "Silver Cloud" is said to be one of the best. As mine were planted by accident, I don't even know what they are, apart from being gorgeous.

In the words of that popular fantasy television show, "winter is coming". It may not bring zombies, but it will bring chill and gloom. Head to the garden centre or your favourite mail order nursery, or you friendly neighbour who may give you some cuttings. Do it now. You owe it to yourself, your family and friends and Canberra's Winter Cheerfulness Index*.

*I know we don't have one. Yet. But a CWC Index is definitely worth adding to local political visions.

This week I am:

  • Possibly doing all the things I planned to do in the garden last week, but it rained and I am a wimp and so stayed dry, mostly.
  • Thinning out possibly 2000 winter lettuce seedlings and trying to harden my heart to compost all but 50 of them.
  • Watching the magic of about 100 two-metre-high tree dahlias in full bloom. We haven't yet had a frost to burn them off.
  • Beginning to pick the first Tahitian limes, though they won't be really juicy till the frosts.
  • Watching the wallabies grow so fat on soft autumn grass their tummies wobble when they hop.
  • Trying to cut some of that soft autumn grass - there is far more than the wallabies can eat - but the rain, drizzle and mizzle means the lawn mower stays in the shed, while I make walnut coffee cake, with icing.
  • Rediscovering that freshly grown coriander tastes sweeter and crisper in cool weather.
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