I was struck recently by words which I read in The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack, a volume of horticultural wisdom first published in 1997.
“The delicious Chimomanthus fragrans (wintersweet) which does best on a south or west wall, begins to flower in December.”
It would be reasonable to suppose that a plant with the descriptive word ‘fragrans’ in its botanical name and with the common name ‘wintersweet’ would be edible. But it is, in fact, a species of flowering plant which is native to China and does indeed bear strongly scented flowers during the winter months in the United Kingdom, in which nation the varieties Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ and ‘Luteus’ have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. (Chimonanthus praecox is a synonym for Chimonanthus fragrans.) It is a strong, deciduous shrub which grows to a height of something of the order of four metres … say, 13 feet in old money … in, perhaps, 20 years, being happiest in well-drained soil in a sheltered position in full sun, the south-west or west wall being ideal. You will have gathered, gentle reader, that having a sheltered, preferably walled garden is a decided advantage if you want to enjoy the waxy, yellow flowers of Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ during the dreariest months of the year. However, it will thrive in a well-sheltered cottage garden or … bless it! … a low maintenance garden, for it is generally disease-free and does not attract the attention of common garden pests.
Another advantage is that wintersweet … the term coming from the flowers’ powerful, attractive scent … carries these flowers before it comes into leaf; so they are fully visible and cannot shelter their welcome, if rather pale, winter colour behind the plant’s foliage. Ideally, the gardener will grow wintersweet where he or she must pass it on their way into or out of their home the better to enjoy its spicy perfume. Be sure to allow space for a young plant to expand to its full spread of around three metres … say, ten feet … for it doesn’t enjoy being drastically pruned to fit into a confined space. Inappropriate summer pruning will, indeed, risk sacrificing the following year’s flowers.
Originally from China, where the flowering period coincides with the Chinese New Year, the fragrant flowers are used during that celebration as hair ornaments. Chimonanthus praecox was introduced into Japan early in the seventeenth century and was first recorded in England in 1766, being grown under glass on the Earl of Coventry’s estate in Worcestershire. It was soon realised that wintersweet was happy to grow outdoors in the more southerly counties of England; and it is now generally reckoned to be fully hardy in the U.K., although seldom recommended for growing in Scotland. Nevertheless, the Scottish Rock Garden Club website records wintersweet as growing in public parks north of the border … it doesn’t say where …and the Scottish artist John Stoa grows it in his garden near Dundee.
Although this is unlikely to be a hazard, it is worth recording that, although an oil prepared from the flowers is used in traditional Chinese medicine, the seeds contains a toxic alkaloid; and a further caution is to record that an entirely different plant … Acokanthers … which is also commonly called wintersweet, has another common name - bushman’s poison! Every part of this other wintersweet is toxic; and the consequences of eating it include nausea, lethargy, seizures, restlessness, and even death. Now there’s a good reason to know that the wintersweet we might grow has the unique botanical name Chimonanthus praecox!