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.
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.
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.