During one sunny afternoon last week, working in the beds outside the north wing of the hotel, I was struck by the most amazing heady scent wafting through the air. Competing with the glorious smells emanating from the kitchen was the sweetest, almost sickly, floral aroma. At first glance I assumed it was one of the large Mahonia x media, which inhabit the top area of these beds, with their sunshine yellow flowers fully open. It takes a brave person to stick their nose into one of these spiky beasts, a member of the Berberis family, but it is well worth the effort. Commonly called the lily of the valley bush, the flowers have a delicate scent but this certainly wasn’t what I could smell.
Moving further along the building I came to the next likely suspect, sarcococca or sweet box. These tough shrubs, which are thriving in the heavy clay of the north wing, line the path from the fire escape up to the croquet lawn and when the clusters of small white flowers open fully have the kind of heady sweet smell which I was looking for. However on closer inspection I found the flowers some way off of opening but made a mental note to make sure I return after Christmas so as to be sure not to miss them when they do open.
It was at this point that I realised the problem with my search. Winter flowering shrubs are often shy about flowering. Unlike summer flowerers the blooms have to cope with extremes of weather and rather than large showy blooms hold their smaller flowers very close to the stems to avoid damage. This means, particularly with evergreens, that unless you have a keen nose you are likely to miss flowering altogether. Even when flowers are borne on naked stems, they tend to be smaller and easily looked over. For example the Hamamelis in the east garden has been flowering for a few weeks now and I must have walked past it dozens of times without noticing until my scent search reminded me that it is all too easy to miss these winter gems.
Giving my search up as a futile task I returned to digging the bindweed from underneath the Elaeagnus. This vigorous evergreen shrub is usually planted badly in municipal car parks and I must confess to considering it as little more than a space filler in the past. However when I looked up from my work I found, hidden in the leaf axils of the copper coloured stems, beautiful creamy white flowers. Plunging my nose into the foliage I found the source of the incredible scent. I had been within four feet of the bush the whole day and had failed to notice it flowering until the warm sunshine bought out the scent. This certainly made me realise that even in the depths of winter it pays to be keen eyed and keen nosed so as not to miss out on what the season has to offer. Reminded of the shy nature of these winter flowers I have made what is now a substantial mental list of plants which heavy in bud at present will bring much needed relief from the cold, dark months ahead.