Plant of The Month – Chimonanthus praecox
Chimonanthus, otherwise known as Wintersweet, is grown chiefly for the wonderful scent produced by its insignificant, creamy-yellow, waxy flowers, which are borne on bare stems from about December to March. It is found growing wild at altitudes of 10,000ft among the mountain scrub of China and was introduced into this country in 1766.
Wintersweet has rough, opposite, dark green leaves and small, solitary, highly scented, yellowish flowers borne on short stalks in winter and spring before the leaves appear. The outer petals (tepals) are waxy, almost transparent in appearance, while the inner tepals are smaller and usually purplish. The flowers are beetle-pollinated.
Many parts of the plant are also rich in essential oils and are used for culinary and medicinal purposes. The flowers are used as a folk medicine in China for treating measles, coughs and tonsillitis. Its essential oils are used in cosmetics, perfumery and aromatherapy. The flowers are used to flavour herbal teas and are also added to potpourri mixtures. In China, wintersweet has long been used to scent linen, in much the same way lavender is used in the UK.
Named cultivars include Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’, which has slightly larger flowers and yellow inner tepals, and C. praecox ‘Grandiflorus’, a larger shrub, with bigger leaves and larger, but less strongly scented, pure yellow flowers, with red-stained inner tepals. Both cultivars have been presented with an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Chimonanthus grows well in a sheltered position, particularly against a warm wall in full sun or in a sunny place on the edge of woodland in warm climates, in moist, but well-drained soil. It can be grown in most soils, but does best on chalky ones. It should only be pruned very lightly, immediately after flowering and is best grown from seed.
If placed close too or on a sunny wall, this shrub can act as a 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’. Its not the most attractive of shrubs later on in the season but planting something at its base like Geranium Patricia, which should scramble up into the lower branches of the wintersweet, will help to provide some summer colour and interest too.
While its not the best shrub for the summer, its sweet scent would certainly encourage you out of the house and into the garden even on the coldest winters day.