12 Fragrant Winter Flowering Shrubs for Beauty and Bees

January 18, 2018 1:34 pm

By: Pam Beck

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) has highly fragrant yellow flowers that bloom in late winter.

Because of our unseasonably mild winters in the Southeast, the bees and I are swooning over an astonishing number of fragrant, winter-flowering shrubs in the garden. Why would Mother Nature spend so much effort creating intense fragrance in mid-winter flowers? Because their floral fragrance and color are designed to lure early bees quickly and efficiently during chance warm snaps.

Native bees and honeybees respond quickly to warm air temperatures that coax them from their wintertime sluggishness. Their numbers are lower during chilly months, so the competition is fierce among winter-flowering plants to attract these few brave little winged souls. Therefore, these shrubs use the most potent enticements available – eye-catching flower color (often in yellow hues) and intense fragrance. Fragrance is the only lure that easily rides air currents around the garden, so the more powerful a plant’s perfume, the better its chance of bee pollination.

Here is a selection of some of my favorite winter-flowering shrubs, beginning with the evergreens and followed by deciduous, to help you find something fragrant to enjoy in your garden this winter, or next. If you plan to plant one, all appreciate soil amendment at planting time. Black Gold Garden Soil is a great choice for adding needed organic matter and a fertilizer boost to encourage good growth and establishment.

Your nose, and the bees, will thank you.

Evergreen Winter Flowering Shrubs

The orange sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus), is a great evergreen flowering shrub for winter blooms.

False hollies or fragrant tea olives (Osmanthus spp.) are intensely scented evergreen shrubs. The sugary, fruity smell of their flowers cause garden visitors to stop in their tracks and inhale deeply. Distinguishable by their opposite leaves (remember “O” for Osmanthus and opposite, whereas true hollies have alternating leaves), these hardy plants are very tolerant of difficult sites and almost trouble-free once established.

If left unpruned, Osmanthus fragrans with its tiny white flowers and O. fragrans var. aurantiacus with similar light orange blooms, can become small trees that will survive winters up to USDA Hardiness Zone 7.

Mahonias are highly effective at luring pollinators with both bright color and intense fragrance.

Grape hollies (Mahonia spp.) are architecturally stunning evergreens with holly-like foliage. They produce highly fragrant, golden-yellow spikes of flowers in winter, which later transform into hanging clusters of frosty berries of dark blue (). Ranging from low-growing ground covers to 10-foot statuesque shrubs, Mahonia are tolerant of shade and make great specimen plantings. Perhaps the best flowers for fragrance are those of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), which begins blooming in early winter.

Sweet box is a tough evergreen for the dry shade that displays both berries and blooms in winter.

Sweet box (Sarcococca spp.) are wonderfully fragrant low-growing evergreens that tend to spread. The dry-shade-loving plants may be forgotten until they flower in early winter with intensely sweet perfume wafting from the tiniest white flowers. One of my favorites for our southeastern gardens is Sarcococca confusa, a 3 to 5 foot shrub that often holds the previous year’s glossy blackberries alongside new blooms.

Daphne are elegant perfumed shrubs for the shade garden.

Fickle daphne (Daphne spp.) are garden heart breakers that we continue planting for their unforgettable winter fragrance. Here’s why they are fickle: they need perfect soil, hate to be transplanted, can’t be bumped, and will turn up their toes if watered incorrectly, but many plant lovers have to have them. Their strong fruity scent escapes from pinkish or white blooms in late January to February. Most garden centers offer winter daphne (Daphne odora, USDA Hardiness Zone 7-9) and Burkwood’s daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9), which both grow to 3 to 4 feet high and wide.

Deciduous Winter Flowering Shrubs

Paperbush is a conversation piece in any winter landscape.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), is one of the most unusual looking shrubs in the winter garden with its naked branches tipped by round clusters of primose-yellow flowers dipped in the shiniest silvery silk. Then on warm winter days, the buds elongate into half-inch long, deep golden trumpets that pour out a rich fragrance that reminds me of sugary icing. Mine has topped out at 4-feet, but paperbush can grow as tall as 6 to 8 feet tall in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-9.

Flowering quince offers slightly fragrant flowers that are brightly colored. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) starts to bloom in late winter to early spring, and flower colors range in various shades of white, pink, red, and orange, not to mention the multi-colored blooms of the variety ‘Toyo-Nishiki’. The fragrance is light and fruity, but quince reliably flowers through the coldest months. The mature size will depend on the type, and there are some exciting new hybrids available at your local garden center.

Winter Jasmine is often mistaken for Forsythia, but it blooms much earlier.

Winter flowering jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is an arching 2- to 4-foot-tall shrub that can eat a lot of garden real estate unless periodically sheared. This shrub will fool your neighbors into thinking that you have the earliest forsythia on the block, as it also sports yellow bells, but on long green whips of branches. One of the easiest plants to grow, winter jasmine is a great solution for a difficult bank or slope.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ flowers are rose in the bud and open to pale pink. (Image by Mike Darcy)

Viburnums (Viburnum spp.) range from evergreen to deciduous, short to tall, and some shrubs in this large group bloom in the dead of winter. Viburnum tinus is a rounded, medium-sized evergreen seen with abundant buds breaking into slightly fragrant flower from January to February, but for intense fragrance look for the upright, deciduous Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ with its sweet-smelling pink flowers.

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) was in full flower in my garden this past Christmas and will continue throughout the winter. A large shrub reaching 10 to 15 feet, wintersweet has the most richly-colored golden, waxy, cupped flowers with purple centers that stream perfume that envelops the entire garden. It grows well in drier sites with full sun to partial shade. Once you have experienced its magic, you will have to own one.

The reddish-orange blooms of ‘Jelena’ witch hazel are extra colorful.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are often described as small trees but are so slow to get growing that you may decide to keep them as shrubs, especially if you delight in cutting branches for indoor enjoyment. The winter flowers have fine, whispy petals and are arranged in clusters along the branches. They look like long-legged sea creatures on a coral reef and range in color from bright yellow to orange or rusty-red. Some witch hazels are more fragrant than others. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ is an extra fragrant, yellow-flowered one to grab, if you can find it.

Fragrant winter hazel produces yellow, pendulous flower clusters in late winter.

Winterhazels (Corylopsis spp.) are often underappreciated until they produce their yellow, pendulous flowers in late winter. A very desirable 4 to 6-foot shrub is the buttercup winterhazel (Corylopsis pauciflora) with its mildly scented, pale lemon-yellow flowers that droop from thin, leafless stems. Fragrant winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) is a larger shrub (8 to 15 feet) that produces larger pendulous flower clusters.

Planted purely for fragrance, the winter honeysuckle smells like the vine but flowers in mid-winter.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) has tiny white winter flowers with an amazing bouquet. The huge, rangy shrub is an old-fashioned favorite that should be planted where its fragrance may be appreciated. We have ours planted at our parking pad so that we are greeted by its sweet scent all winter long.

If you’d like to learn more about fragrant winter flowering shrubs, find a copy of The Winter Garden, Planning and Planting for the Southeast by Peter Loewer and Dr. Larry Mellichamp, originally published in 1997 by Stackpole Books, and still in print. It has been an invaluable resource to me.

About Pam Beck

Pam Beck began her gardening education in 1987 by volunteering in a public herb garden, which inspired her to join the Master Gardeners and take horticulture classes. She has worked in garden center retail, learned plant production hands-on in a nursery, created designs for landscape contractors and homeowners, and was an assistant with Cooperative Extension for a short time. She has scouted and styled for Better Homes & Gardens magazine; served on the Board of Advisors for two university botanical gardens; and, taught Adult Education landscaping classes for Wake Tech; but, you probably know her best as an award-winning freelance garden writer, lecturer, and photographer. Pam is the co-author of Best Garden Plants for North Carolina, regularly contributed articles in Carolina Gardener Magazine for 16 years, and for 5 years she was a monthly garden columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Currently, her busy speaking schedule takes her throughout the Southeast enthusiastically sharing her love of plants, gardens of all kinds, and the people who tend them.

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Choosing fragrant winter flowers for your garden

A winter garden can be a magical tapestry of dramatic, evergreen foliage; bright, shiny berries; golden grasses and colourful stems, but for me, on a crisp, clear winter day, it is the heady fragrance of winter flowers that surprises and intoxicates the senses.

Winter flowering plants are among the most highly scented of all garden plants and although they originate in many different parts of the world, they seem to be trying to outdo one another in the perfume stakes in order to attract pollinators. Winter fragrant flowers can sometimes appear small and insignificant but they have evolved in this way to lure the few pollinating insects around in winter with scent. What they lack in size they more than make up for in fragrance!

Aromatherapists believe essential oils lift our spirits and retrieve long forgotten memories and who am I to disagree? Whatever kind of scent appeals to you there will be many plants to choose from for your winter garden and no matter how small your patch, make room somewhere for at least one of these fragrant winter gems – you will not be disappointed.

Tips on growing fragrant winter flowers

You will derive most pleasure from your winter fragrant plants when you plant them by paths and walkways or by entrances and doorways in regular winter use. What could be more pleasurable than to be welcomed by a waft of sweetly scented cool air every time you open the door?


One of my all-time favourites is wintersweet, Chimomanthus praecox, with its delicious yet sophisticated spicy smell, stronger in the species than in cultivars. Cut a few twigs and bring them indoors – the tiny yellow flowers with inner maroon streaks are waxy with essential oils and the fragrance will fill the whole room!

Nepalese paper plant

The increasing power of the sun in the New Year triggers many winter shrubs into bloom. One of my favourites is the Nepalese paper plant, Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, a medium- sized, ever-green shrub bearing clusters of highly fragrant, purplish-pink and white flowers in late winter. These are followed by attractive black berries.

Sweetest honeysuckle

A favourite with the Eden outdoor gardening team is Lonicera fragrantissima, the winter-flowering honeysuckle or ‘sweetest honeysuckle’. Pairs of sweet honey-scented, creamy flowers bloom from winter into spring, often followed by red berries.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

This plant has a perfume reminiscent of cloves, jonquils and heliotrope. If you bring this one indoors it can smell a little sickly, but in the garden on a calm, sunny day it smells heavenly. Look closely and you will see tight clusters of rosy-pink flowers that fade to white as they age.

Witch hazel

Here in the Outdoor Gardens of the Eden Project, the leafless branches of witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ are adorned with spidery, coppery-orange flowers that fill the air with a delicate perfume. This is considered to be one of the best cultivars around today and has the added bonus of spectacular red and gold autumn colour.


The only drawback to some of these wonderful plants is that they can look drab during the rest of year. The answer could be to plant them in containers so you can move them in and out of the limelight. However, one of the most dramatic exceptions to this is Mahonia, which looks great all year round. As autumn turns to winter, Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, throws up clusters of bright yellow flowers with a delicious, old-fashioned scent. The large, spiky, glossy leaves look good all year round and in summer the plant is covered in deep purple berries that you can make into juices and jellies, providing the birds don’t get to them first!

Image credits: Wintersweet – coniferconifer; Sweetest Honeysuckle – ombrosoparacloucycle; Dawn – EAWB; Mahonia – Rictor Norton & David Allen

Scented Winter Plants

SERIES 16 | Episode 27

Many people think winter is a time of doom and gloom in the garden. But this is not always the case, particularly in the Adelaide garden we filmed, where hellebores are in flower, together with tiny snowdrops and magnificent camellias.

There are many different camellias in the garden, but the ones currently in flower are Camellia japonicas. These flower from June until October. Look out for ‘Betty Sheffield Supreme’, which has a beautiful pink flower with splashes of white. Camellia japonicas grow best with morning sun and afternoon shade, or under deciduous trees, but they do need acid soil.

Other treasures in a winter garden are the true English snowdrop or Galanthus. They’re natives of Europe, need a cold winter to flower and are quite rare bulbs. A plant that’s often mistaken for the snowdrop is the Leucojum aestivum, or snowflake. It’s a native of the Mediterranean and is taller than Galanthus.

Helleborus, or winter rose, are another plant that feature strongly in this garden. They’re wonderful perennials that grow beautifully under deciduous trees. There are many different sorts, ranging in colour from white, through shades of pink, to almost black.

It’s great to have scented plants, flowers and perfumes in the garden 12 months of the year. This means scent can be used as another facet of garden design, together with colour, texture, form and flowering period.

One with scented flowers is Wintersweet or Chimonanthus praecox. It’s an upright deciduous shrub that produces amazing starry flowers in winter. They’re yellow, with some red in the centre, waxy, and the perfume is exquisite. It’s got undertones of violet, jonquil, and a really spicy, fruity, sweet honey scent. A small amount of flower can create an amazing affect on the entire garden. Chimonanthus grow well throughout southern or eastern Australia.

Another favourite scented plant for the winter garden is Osmanthus fragrans, sweet olive or sweet osmanthus. It looks ordinary, there is nothing spectacular about the leaves, the flowers are insignificant, but believe it or not, Osmanthus fragrans smells like ripe apricots. It’s is an upright evergreen shrub to 3 or 4 metres, and should be incorporated in the garden where its perfume can be fully appreciated during the cooler weather.

But it’s not possible to talk about winter flowering scented plants and not include Daphne. Daphne is a wonderful evergreen shrub to about a metre by a metre and it’s probably the most popular of the winter scents. It has pretty pink and white flowers and the most delicious, sweet clove smell. There is also a pure white form with a lemon scent. Daphne can be picked to put in a vase inside the house and it doesn’t take much to perfume a whole room.

Daphne can be temperamental to grow. It needs a semi shaded position, where it gets morning sun and afternoon shade, and also likes acid soil and good drainage. Try it in a pot so that when it’s in flower you can move the pot closer to the house to fully appreciate its scent.

To improve your garden experience place scented plants in the garden so they can be appreciated, even through the cold winter months.

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