Haven’t we been having a wonderful winter? The cold has kept the botanical world in a deep slumber. Nothing stirs in our gardens except little flocks of songbirds. Our gardens are mostly monochrome grey with only the darkest of greens providing any variation. There is little for the gardener to do outdoors, so when he does venture out he has the leisure to take in the subtleties of winter’s garden beauties. There is yet much beauty to be seen in our garden, but only if we pause to look and see. This is how Elizabeth Lawrence put it in her fine book “Gardens in Winter”.
“How beautiful it is when the pattern of the garden becomes clear again; when no leaves blur the long straight line or gentle curve, or the restful circle laid on the square; when levels are sharply defined, and intervals between steps have the rhythm of falling water; when hidden nests are revealed, distant tree tops unveiled, and lost vistas regained.” She went on to quote a line of poetry from the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, “Sweeter yet than dream or song of summer or spring are winter’s sometime smiles”.
One of the sweet smiles of a winter garden is Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Wintersweet is a large deciduos shrub or small tree of informal habit with attractive dark green, long, pointed leaves. It is a vigorous plant growing 13 ft . If you come across it in a winter garden, it will likely be the only tree in bloom. On bright winter days its brilliant yellow flowers on bare stems stand out against the clear blue skies of winter.
But it is wintersweet’s strongly scented flowers, produced in our coldest months, that are the attraction. It is one of the first of our trees to bloom each year, thus it’s species name Praecox meaning- precocious. The flowers ( about 3/4 – 1 inch across) grow along Wintersweet’s branches and look like yellow, cupped stars with red centers. As a bonus, the flowering branches provide a delightful fragrance in the garden on winter days or when cut and brought indoors.
Wintersweet does well here in Nacogdoches County. I’m not for sure how well it might do southward towards Houston, since it does need some cold weather to bloom and be happy. It also needs a sunny spot to perform at its best. Unlike many of our small trees, it is not happy growing in the deep shade of oaks and pines. Put Wintersweet somewhere where it will get several hours of full sun each day.
If you can find space for this little tree, it is sure to brighten the winter days in your garden. Ask your local nurserymen for Wintersweet; but if they should not stock them, try mail order nurseries like Forest Farm in Oregon or Woodlanders in North Carolina. It is sometimes sold as Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ or Large-flowered Wintersweet and C. praecox ‘Luteus’. But simple Wintersweet, as opposed to these fancier ones, will make a fine tree.