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Scent of Summer in Winter

This article was first published on 10 Jun 2020.

Sarcococca hookeriana

Sarcococca hookeriana

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

Winter may be the so-called dormant season in the garden, but there are still treasures to be found, not least being the scent from a variety of different plants.

In the Rhododendron Dell at Dunedin Botanic Garden, growing near the tall Pinus radiata surrounded by woodchip, one in particular to look out for, is Sarcococca hookeriana.

It is a versatile evergreen with arching stems that eventually grows into a mound of glossy green foliage over 1.5m tall. The small white flowers don’t have petals, so are clusters of only male stamens or female stigmas arising from structures that form at the base of the shiny pointed leaves.

They emit a remarkably sweet and pervasive scent despite their size.  An added bonus is that the fruit, small red to black berries, mature so slowly that they are still present when the new season’s flowers appear and persist along with them throughout much of winter.

Neutral to alkaline, humus-rich soil is best but this plant adapts well to the acid conditions of the woodland garden. In the smaller home garden it’s also reliable for tricky areas of dry shade under trees or at the foot of a wall.  However, if growing it in sun you do need to ensure the site is moist or the leaves will scorch.

Sarcococca are in the Buxaceae or box family so, like their small leaved cousins, can also be trimmed and grown as a low hedge, with the additional attraction of winter fragrance.