22 Jan 2015

Scents and sensibility

(Now there's a title that's been trotted out more than once in blogland, I'll wager.)

(I don't need to tell you this is Honeysuckle, do I?)

In the winter months, while waiting for the garden to wake up, there's something really special about the scent of flowers on the breeze or in the still of an evening. It's there to attract pollinators and is particularly helpful to bumblebees who start to wake up in January and need to stock up their food reserves.

I've been thinking about scent in the garden since being asked to advise on a bare patch of earth destined to become a front garden. The client is a florist who wants her garden to be welcoming and uplifting whether viewed from the street or indoors. So my recommendations will encompass scent, colour, movement and seasonal interest.  I then read that Sue, author of Backlane Notebook blog, and Louise 'Wellywoman' Curley were proposing a monthly round up post of the scent in our gardens. Open to all, join in! Wellywoman's first post is here.

I headed outside to see what was scenting the air locally.  There are two stands of Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' in the gardens here - a shrub well-known for its subtle scent and pretty flower clusters in the middle of winter. I say "subtle" but at times I've been able to get a whiff from a good five paces away.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

There's also some ancient honeysuckle snaking through an overgrown Hebe - I think it's Japanese honeysuckle which is supposed to flower in summer but I found a few blossoms among the evergreen leaves and quickly snipped those for a vase indoors. They're wilting after five days but even now I can catch a whiff as I walk past.

But an unusual winter niff, at least from these gardens, is from Petasites fragrans.  Popularly known as Winter Heliotrope and related to Sweet Coltsfoot and Butterburr, it's more commonly found on roadsides and woodland verges. It's perennial and non-native, being introduced to the UK as a garden plant back in 1806 when George III was still our monarch. By 1835, it had escaped from gardens into the wild.  I only found out what it was last year thanks to an article in the RHS magazine on scented winter flowers.

The flower spikes are about ten inches high and only really look good for a few days but get up close, or pick a few for a small vase, and their sweet scent is revealed.  I've read that they smell like vanilla or honey.  As a keen baker, I have to disagree - to me, they smell sweet, like baby talc.  If the colour soft pink had a smell, this would be it.

But that's it - its one and only season of interest. In these gardens, the flower spikes start to appear in late December and the flowers - small tubular clusters - show up in early January.  The leaves are soft, bright green and shaped like lily pads but even those will be blackened or mottled by a sharp frost. The plant spreads by underground rhizomatous roots and there's my problem.  It's quietly invasive and hard to get rid of except with some determination and a lot of digging.

It dominates one of the raised borders here and is earmarked to go. So far it's been left alone because it provides dense ground cover until I'm ready to use the space but I've noticed that it's spread along under the Hebe where it usefully grows in shade. I suspect it's providing cover for a host of over wintering bugs and bumbles so I'll relocate some when (or if) I dig it up.  It would make a good alternative to ivy in a lightly shaded garden, I think, but it grows to the detriment of other plants nearby.

I think I mentioned that it spreads easily …  

I have no idea why it's growing in the gardens here - I can't imagine anyone deliberately choosing to plant it and I'm fairly certain you can't buy it - but it does provide a rich source of early nectar for bumblebees.  Because bumbles are warm-blooded they can fly in cooler winter temperatures (unlike the honeybee) so an early source of food for them is vital - especially if you want your veg pollinated in due course. They can fly up to six miles from the nest site so it's in the gardener's best interest to ensure they stick around by providing a good source of nectar.  In her book 'The Natural Gardener', Val Bourne says that they have a preference for tubular flowers - foxgloves, aconitums and nepetas being their favourites.  It seems that Petasites might be more friend than foe.

PS. Don't think my search for winter scent stopped at home; next up, Daphne bholua and the winter walk at Wisley.


  1. So we need Blogger to introduce "Smellyvision" then, do we? The Coltsfoot reminds me of my Grandma, because there was loads of it growing near her house in Cornwall, wild in the hedges rather than in gardens. You don't see it much round here, so maybe it needs the warmer conditions of a city or coastline.

    1. It's definitely not a garden plant, Mark, so I've no idea how it got here! I'm not surprised that you remember it from your trips to Cornwall as the plant is supposed to like hedgerows and clifftops where it can spread easily.

  2. An interesting post, funny what you learn on a tour through blogland! I enjoy walking past gardens in the winter sniffing the air, a bit like one of the bisto kids! x

  3. Isn't it so nice to get a waft of lovely fragrance in the garden even in the depths of winter? Such a bonus!

  4. I am thinking of planting in a pot in the way that I use the summer Heliotrope 'Cherry Pie' . It's worth an experiment since aside from the scent I like that it's short in height.

  5. From my observation I think bumble bees like to rest up in the shelter of flowers like foxgloves as I often spot one dozing in a flower

  6. That's certainly one I haven't come across before. It would be a shame to dig it up if you can no longer buy it, but it does have the look of an invasive.

  7. A really interesting post Caro, especially about Petasites, it's not something I'm familiar with, but it's good to know it has something for the bees. Scented flowers in winter are wonderful aren't they, so very special. I shall look forward to reading more posts about them. CJ xx

  8. On a warm day in the woodland the air is buzzing as the bees visit Crocus tommasinianus.
    I try to have something with perfume each month, so wandering round the garden is a real pleasure no matter what time of year it is.
    Unfortunately Petasites is a rampant spreader, I have enough of those already, planted before I knew anything about gardening!

  9. It's a shame it's invasive as it's quite pretty and as you say, we need plants which are beneficial to our wildlife. I can't say I notice much scent in my garden during the winter months, perhaps I should look in to buying scented plants for each month of the year as well as flowering ones.

  10. An interesting post, and terrific pictures. Sadly my sense of smell is poor so most flower fragrances are lost to me. I see that you mention my favourite gardening book The Natural Gardener by Val Bourne.
    Flighty xx

  11. Beautiful viburnum. I have never s

  12. That's a good idea to celebrate the scent in our gardens through a monthly post. I have seen the Petasites fragrans but can't remember where! Sarah x

  13. I swear I can smell Dawn from here, what beautiful flowers and such a pretty colour. Some plants do take over don't they, and once they have a hold it's almost impossible to remove them. It's good to know the bumbles are out, I haven't seen any yet.xxx

  14. How spooky Caro as the very same article in the RHS magazine came to my rescue last year when I came across an unknown plant growing just off the road in Cumbria. I read the article not long afterwards which pointed me in the direction of petasites but I concluded that it wasn't fragrans. With help from blogging friends especially Wellywoman I came to the conclusion that my plant was petasites albus. Your plants look most attractive and the scent sounds delicious. A nuisance that it's a thug but then no plant is perfect.

  15. Fascinating post. I love that you're creating a garden to appeal to all the senses.

    I'm really interested in your ideas about scent on the winter garden. Over here (South Australia), with our milder winters, our gardens don't sleep the same way yours do. Still, I think you're right that scent is a sign that spring is on its way, that sap is quickening and pollen being created for bees.


Thank you to everyone who leaves a comment, it helps to know that my scribblings are being read! If you have a question, I'll answer it here or contact me via the 'Contact Me' form at the top.

Comment moderation is on to avoid spam nonsense getting published. No offence to genuine commenters who are very welcome!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...