How to grow: wintersweet

There are two commonly available cultivated varieties of Chimonanthus praecox. One is called ‘Grandiflorus’, and has larger leaves and deeper yellow flowers; the other, var. luteus, has completely yellow petals without the purple staining on the inside. This flowers a little later in the winter or even early spring. Both are good, garden-worthy forms, although neither has quite the strength of fragrance of the original.

The gloomiest opinion says that wintersweet will take seven years to flower but Terry Baker, of The Botanic Nursery, thinks this too pessimistic, and knows of plants that have flowered after three or four years. This reputation for slow-bearing perhaps explains why you will not find it in every garden.

Unless trained against a wall, when wintersweet can grow up to about 10ft, it usually makes a rounded or domed shrub, about 6.5ft tall. When out of flower, chimonanthus is not very exciting, but that is true of many a good, scented garden shrub – philadelphus is the most obvious example – and this should not put you off, unless space is at a high premium. Nor should the time it takes before flowering deter gardeners, except those who are about to move house.

Growing tips

Chimonanthus is happy in any reasonable, well-drained garden soil, even where there is chalk. It likes a sunny, sheltered position and flowers best when trained against a south wall, or planted near one. When the shoots are being ripened in summer, they will benefit from the heat given off by the wall at night. Otherwise, except in very favoured districts, flowering will not be generous if the summer before is mediocre.

If planted against a wall, the planting hole should be substantial and a good mixture of organic matter mixed in with the soil. Like any other shrub planted against a south or west wall, it will need mulching, and watering regularly for the first year. The better start it gets and the warmer the conditions, the sooner it is likely to start flowering.

Chimonanthus fragrans should not be pruned when young, as this may delay the onset of flowering. Once they are well-established, the longer shoots of trained wall plants can be trimmed back to two buds from their base, ideally immediately after flowering. Otherwise, remove the oldest wood of specimen shrubs after flowering, if the shrub is becoming congested.

Propagation is usually by layering in late summer; the layers can take two years to root. Seed can be sown, but the seedlings take a long time before they flower, and their quality will be uncertain.

Generally, wintersweet is not prone to pest damage, but young shoots can be damaged by frost.

Good companions

In favoured localities, the wintersweet’s shape makes a splendid foil for either horizontal or spire-like shrubs, such as Juniperus horizontalis or J.’Skyrocket’. As wintersweet is deciduous, the area around its skirts can be planted with any number of spring-flowering bulbs, such as narcissus and anemones, to give colour and life after the wintersweet flowers are over, but before the new leaves are full grown.

If placed close to, or on, a sunny wall, this shrub can act as host to an early-flowering clematis, such as one from the alpina or macropetala groups, or a late-summer-flowering one, such as ‘Hagley Hybrid’ or ‘Rouge Cardinal’.

It is best not planted too close to other strong-scented winter-flowering shrubs, such as Lonicera x purpusii or Viburnum x bodnantense. However, a spring- or summer-flowering, scented shrub or climber planted nearby, such as Carpenteria californica or Jasminum x stephanense, will deflect attention away from the dull wintersweet leaves later in the season.

Where to buy

Chimonanthus praecox is widely available. For mail order try the Botanic Nursery (07850 328756, www.thebotanicnursery.com) and the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery (01208 872668, www.duchyofcornwallnursery.co.uk).

  • Click here to order wintersweet from Crocus.co.uk

Wintersweet is a wonderful winter-blooming shrub tree.

Wise Wintersweet facts

Name – Chimonanthus praecox
Family – Calycanthaceae
Type – shrub

Height – 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters)
Exposure – full sun
Soil – ordinary

Foliage – deciduous or evergreen
Flowering – January to March

Planting, pruning and care, if well done, will increase growth and blooming of your wintersweet tree.

Planting wintersweet

Wintersweet can be planted to the ground either in spring or in fall.

  • Soil type doesn’t matter.
  • Best find a spot that is in light sun without any scorching heat to produce the most abundant blooming.
  • Follow our advice on planting shrubs.

Pruning and caring for Wintersweet

It isn’t really necessary to prune wintersweet. If you do, remember that wintersweet will only bear flowers on stems that are already a year old.

  • Remove dead wood and broken branches whenever you notice them.

If you wish to reshape or reduce the size of the largest branches somewhat, then wait for blooming to be over.

Wintergreen care is easy and it will love being planted in light shade.

Learn more about Wintersweet

This shrub will produce a magnificent blooming as early as January, which lasts until fair days arrive.

Both fragrant and luminous, its flowers will appeal to you and bring you joy, a blessing in the winter cold.

Wintersweet is a very ornamental shrub, much appreciated for delicate, sweet fragrance of this winter shrub.

Little care is required, only a bit of water in summer in case of high temperatures.

Known wintersweet varieties

The following wintersweet varieties boast evergreen leafage: Chimonanthus campanulatus, Chimonanthus grammatus, Chimonanthus nitens.

Smart tip about Wintersweet

Mulch can keep wintersweet from feeling water stress in summer.

Don’t ingest wintersweet seeds because they’re poisonous

Read also

  • The most beautiful winter-blooming shrubs

Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Wintersweet blooms against blue sky by TANAKA Juuyoh 田中十洋 under © CC BY 2.0
Wintersweet buds by Martin Cao under license
Sunset with wintersweet by Ajari under © CC BY 2.0

How to grow wintersweet (chimonanthus)

Chimonanthus praecox is also known as wintersweet. It’s the perfect name for a shrub with deliciously scented flowers that appear in January and February. The small, pale yellow, waxy blooms appear on bare stems and might appear insignificant. But they really do punch above their weight in fragrance terms. Wintersweet is a relatively slow-growing shrub, good for a medium-sized garden as it reaches a maximum height of 4m, and spreads to around 2.5m. Florists love wintersweet for cutting and adding to winter floral arrangements.

Advertisement

Take a look at our handy Chimonanthus praecox Grow Guide, below.

Related content:

  • Scented plants for December
  • Five cut flowers for February
  • Shrubs that look good in December

Planting position

For best results grow Chimonanthus praecox in a warm, sheltered position, in full sun. Think about planting companions. You don’t want wintersweet to compete with other scented winter shrubs such as Daphne or Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. It’s also worth considering that in summer, the foliage of chimonanthus is definitely not its best feature, so it might benefit from being next to a showy climber or shrub. It’s a good shrub to plant near a doorway or by a path, to catch the delicious scent as you pass. It’s also good for training against a warm, south-facing wall.

Planting chimonanthus

If planting chimonanthus against a wall, make sure you dig a generous hole, not too close to the brickwork, incorporating plenty of well-rotted compost and micorrhizal fungi. Water regularly until established.

How to plant shrubs

Propagating chimonanthus

You can propagate Chimonanthus praecox by seed, but the plant will take a long time to mature and come into flower. To ensure reliable flowers from cultivated varieties it’s best to propagate by softwood cuttings or layering in summer.

Chimonanthus: problem solving

Chimonanthus praecox is generally pest and disease free.

Care

Chimonanthus praecox should be mulched annually with well-rotted manure or compost. Keep pruning to a minimum, removing dead, diseased or crossing branches.

Chimonanthus varieties to try

Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ Advertisement

  • Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ – the flowers are larger than the species and completely yellow, without the purple inner petals. It blooms later in winter than original wintersweet, but its fragrance is not as strong
  • Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ – larger leaves and deeper yellow flowers than the species, but with the central purple blotch

Fragrant Gardening

Chimonanthus praecox var. Luteus; Wintersweet; 素心腊梅

Wintersweet Information

Hardiness: Zone 6

Flowering: winter (mid-late winter and early spring)

Fragrance Description: very pleasant; strong; fragrance comparable to Jasmine Sambac in strength and floral quality (sweet).

Sun exposure: sun to partial shade (dislike wind, so best to be planted near wall)

Wintersweet Seeds

Wintersweet Seeds

From Seed to Flower: 3-5 years.

Germination Rate: >90%

Germination occurs: in 1 month. My seedlings appear within 2 weeks (after sowing with seeds that already have tap root).

Tap root first appears: earliest at 3 days, but may take up to 1 month; if follow proper instructions, it should take at most two weeks.Fresh seeds are the best, but seeds kept for 1 year should still be viable. The seeds I have are collected 2 month ago.

Seed collection tip: collect seeds even if the seed pod is not completely dry. Collect during June-August. I found that early June seeds are the best (no special treatment needed to germinate; no removing of seed coat required, tap root appears in 3-5 days). Seeds collected in late June are viable but takes much longer to germinate unless you remove the seed coat

Pure Yellow Luteus; 素心腊梅

Purple Heart; 狗牙腊梅

Experience:

At the end of July, while traveling, I saw a Wintersweet tree with seed pods; I have been trying to find the pure yellow kind of Wintersweet (var. Luteus) for quite a while and was very excited that I have finally found a source (I knew that the tree was the pure yellow kind since I have seen that it in flowers).

I own a couple of purple heart Wintersweet (狗牙腊梅), none of which have flowered yet (hopefully this winter?). The pure yellow kind (素心腊梅)is one of the best species of Wintersweet due to its stronger fragrance. Purple heart is not as aesthetically appealing as the pure yellow since the flowers look more pointy; pure yellow Wintersweet have rounder flower shape and the color is very bright (happy color for winter). Currently, I also have a 2-year old seedling of the pure yellow Wintersweet (brought from a private seller online).

I collected some seeds and tried germination with them. So far, it has been a big success with germination rate at >90%. The only thing I am a little hesitant about propagating this variety is that the seedlings might not have the quality of its mother; seedling of a pure yellow mother may be a purple heart after all. Pure yellow Wintersweet is mostly propagated by grafting, since that ensure that the resulting plant have exact qualities as the parent. However, after asking the seller who I purchased my pure yellow Wintersweet from, she ensured me that the seedlings will still be

pure yellow Wintersweet; she has many Wintersweet propagated from seeds and so far all of them remain true to their parent. May be this is because the seedling has a larger propensity to be like its mother? Evolution to digress away from parent has a smaller probability?

I will be starting another batch of Wintersweet seeds soon and will post progress. Hopefully, I will document every step along the way so that if anyone needs detail instruction he/she only need to look at my progression posts. Warning: it may take up to 3-5 year for Wintersweet propagated from seeds to flower.

  • Go to Plant Propagation to see instructions.
  • Go to Post Category: “Progress Update-Wintersweet” to see daily updates of how new batch of seeds are doing.

I first encountered wintersweet on a memorable day in the long overgrown wilderness of my childhood garden. Miss Joy, the maker of that acre which had finally overwhelmed her, had clearly been quite a plantswoman and we unearthed many hidden treasures as we cleared forty years of neglect. We had found a colony of trillium surviving in the leaf mould beneath a fallen amelanchier and scarlet peonies pushing through a glade of dim nettle. On this still winter’s day we discovered the wintersweet.

We were slowly freeing the orchard of bramble to make a clearing. The source of a spicy and pervasive perfume eluded us while we worked but, as we cleared deeper into the thicket, we became aware of its origin. Scent triggers the strongest memories and I remember quite clearly the cut and the pull and getting closer to the prize as we tore at the thicket that surrounded and mounted the limbs of the mysterious shrub. Being the most nimble, and with the light of the day failing, the last few feet required a contortion to reach an accessible limb and pull a twig of flowers, which were hardly visible in the half-light, pallid and speckled on the gaunt branches.

I know the smell in an instant now, but then its strength on the cool air was intoxicating for the discovery of something new. Later, in the heat of the kitchen, the perfume from this single twig filled the entire room. Geraldine, our neighbour and my gardening friend from across the lane, shared in the excitement and identified it as Chimonanthus praecox. We studied the waxiness of the translucent blooms. Starry, but cupped like an open hand with fingers facing forward, a second layer revealed an inner boss of petals stained plum-red.

Chimonanthus praecox

Until recently I have not had the place to plant one for myself, so I have gone out of my way to find wintersweet a home in clients’ gardens in the knowledge that they too will reap the rewards in January and February. This vicarious pleasure has been lived out fully at a project I am working on in Shanghai where I have designed a series of gardens that seat a number of restored Ming and Qing dynasty merchant’s houses within a forest of ancient camphor trees.

In the process of understanding how to interpret the planting, my research into Chinese gardens revealed that wintersweet was one of the natives used repeatedly in the pared-back palette of auspicious plants. The winter perfume was revered and the dried flowers were used to scent linen much as we use lavender here. Come the summer the long, lime green leaves are also scented when crushed. I have used them throughout the site as free-standing shrubs, placed close to the junction of paths where you are already pausing, but are then halted by the surprise of perfume.

Chimonanthus praecox at Westonbirt Arboretum

In its native habitat in open woodland Chimonanthus praecox can grow to as much as thirteen metres. In cultivation it forms a nicely branched shrub of three by three metres and, being well-behaved, it has been a mainstay of Chinese gardens for more than 1000 years. It was first introduced to Japan in the late 17th century as a garden plant and then to Britain a century later, arriving at Croome Court in 1766.

If you read up about it, books repeatedly state that it needs the radiated heat of a south or west wall to ripen its wood sufficiently to flower well. The half-radius of Lutyens’ Rotunda at Hestercombe House, where Gertrude Jekyll’s original planting of 1904 still survives, beautifully demonstrates its use as a wall-trained shrub. Indeed, you see it flowering most prolifically on the hottest part of the wall.

As it is hardy to -10°C it is happy out in the open and I have found it to be far more adaptable in this country where not too far north. The specimen at Westonbirt Arboretum, for instance, is flowering well in open woodland, so it is worth breaking the rules if you dare.

Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’

Grown from seed wintersweet can take up to fifteen years to flower, a containerised plant five or eight after planting, much like a wisteria. As a species Chimonanthus praecox is variable, but there are a small number of named forms commercially available.

In the Winter Garden I designed at Battersea Park (main image) I have used C. p. ‘Luteus’ as a perfumed welcome by the Sun Gate at the garden’s entrance to draw people in. I am not completely sure the plant supplied is the real ‘Luteus’. Although the flowers register a strong beeswax yellow they have a very slight staining to the central boss, which ‘Luteus’ is not supposed to have. ‘Sunburst’ is yellower still, whilst C. p. ‘Grandiflorus’ has a larger, more open flower which is paler and more translucent. A red stain suffusing the central boss is more typical of the species, which is also reputed to be more heavily scented than the above selections, although I’ve never been able to compare them.

Planting the new wintersweet at Hillside

As I have waited this long to be able to plant one for myself and am impatient for flower, I went to Karan Junker for a mature, field-grown specimen. Her seed came to her via Roy Lancaster from a batch originally selected by the great Japanese botanist and plant collector Mikinori Ogisu. There is a fabled pinky-red clone in Japan and the seed potentially included these genes. Just before Christmas I planted my ten-year-old by the studio door so that the perfume is not wasted and today it has broken the first of a half dozen buds to reveal a form that is clear waxy yellow. There are no dark markings, but the scent – my February fix and instant reminder of my childhood discovery – is bewitching. A winter without wintersweet would be a duller season, unmarked by this strange, scented treasure.

Words: Dan Pearson / Photographs: Huw Morgan

Chimonanthus

Posted March 15, 2011 15:21h in Plant of the Month by Josh Coceano

Witch hazels and snow drops are considered by many to be the superstars of the late winter garden. While rightfully so, it shouldn’t be at the expense of other noteworthy plants. Chimonanthus, or fragrant wintersweet, offers both flower and fragrance to the winter garden.

A member of the Calycanthaceae family, Chimonanthus praecox was introduced from the far east in 1766. The shrub can reach 10 – 15’ high and 8 – 12’ wide in southern climates. Michael Dirr’s observations find Chimonanthus attaining smaller proportions in northern zones. Dirr theorizes that colder temperatures may regulate size and growth. Hardy from zones 6 to 9, wintersweet prefers full to partially shaded exposures with good drainage.

Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ currently blooming in the Scott Entrance Garden. photo credit: J. Coceano

The multi-stemmed shrub bears simple, elliptic-ovate leaves that are rough to the touch. The dark green leaves change to muted shades of yellow in the fall. While subtle in effect, the color adds another facet to the shrub’s appeal. The true selling point of Chimonanthus is the fragrant, cupped flowers appearing in late winter. Each flower is borne single on the previous year’s wood. Depending on species, flowers are varying shades of near transparent yellow. Flowering is spread across several weeks with new buds opening depending on temperatures.

Consider setting Chimonanthus near a door or path where the fragrance can be appreciated. Planting within a courtyard or near a wall can provide protection from frost that can damage open flowers. One wholesaler suggested allowing clematis to scramble up the trunk and branches. The vine will benefit from the support and provide another layer of interest during the growing season. Prune older branches to maintain vigor and shape. Pruning should be done after flowering.

C. praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ is the upper stem. C. praecox is the lower stem. photo credit. J. Coceano

Growing near the entrance to the Cunningham House is Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’. As the cultivar name implies, golden yellow flowers distinguish this wintersweet from the straight species and the cultivar ‘Grandiflorus’. C. praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ bears slightly larger flowers with an overall larger habit compared to the species. Research suggests that C. praecox produces greater fragrance. All three can be seen at the Scott Arboretum. C. praecox ‘Luteus’ will be available for purchase that the 2011 Scott Associates Plant Sale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *