Flowers of the winter solstice: Chimonanthus praecox, Galanthus elwesii

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July 8, 2018

The winter solstice has been and gone. The air in the garden at the back of the house is full of perfume. The winter sweet is out. I think this plant has the greatest of all flower scents. It smells like Chanel no. 5 might long to smell, if it could wish.

It is a shrub which will get to 1-3 metres tall. It is unprepossessing most of the time. It has a downward hanging, sandpapery textured leaf in the classic shape, of pale to mid green. Deciduous, it’s autumn colour is a kind of  dirty yellow and the leaves are slow to drop. It makes seed pods which hang down from the branches for a long time too. They go black and look like little bats. It is a scruffy shrub. The kind that might be destroyed by one of those chainsaw-gardeners, in an ignorant fit of garden tidiness.

In winter, for the solstice, small yellow buds open on the bare branches to small, translucent, waxy, lemon flowers. The flowers are lemon yellow at first, and honey yellow as they age.

All scruffiness is forgiven when you smell the glamourous scent of these little flowers.

A branch inside a cool room will last a week or more. We have a long, thin house with an abundance of coolness. I have had a branch in a vase in the front hall, which is in the middle of the house. I can smell it all the way in my bedroom.

Winter sweet, or Chimonanthus praecox, is an unfussy plant and seems to struggle on in various settings. However, it will grow best in a sunny spot and sun will make it set more flowers. It originates from China. It grows slowly and is long living. I bought another one at Chandlers Nursery in Hobart recently and have planted it out. Greedy gardener that I am, I’ve plans for another too, near the back door. Only we have a few repairs to do to a stone wall first, so that planting spot will have to wait for its promised shrub.

As well as winter sweet, the snowdrops are out, and some miniature cyclamen.

Mum planted the snowdrops, Galanthus elwesii, at Valleyfield. We have a little clump to exclaim over and grow excited about if we see some new ones joining it from seed. Of course, subjects of the curse of the British garden magazine (see the entry for February 2018), what we long for is great swathes of naturalised snowdrops under a bare-branched, sherwood-like forest. It seems that this will be a long wait. There is talk of them having a scent in the British garden magazines, but I’m blowed if I can detect much of one. Each year I crouch down, bum in the air, like I’m kissing the feet of a pope, to sniff the tiny downward nodding flowers. There is a hint of pollen perhaps, but mostly what I smell is damp, wintery earth. Galanthus elwesii comes from the mountains of Turkey. They are named after the British plant hunter who plundered them and brought them to the gardens of England.  Indeed, so much plundering had gone on, they have become endangered in their natural habitat. They are meant to a bit hardier in Australian conditions than Galathus nivalis which is the more common European galanthus.  You can buy bulbs from Vogel bulbs in summer.

The miniature cyclamen are another tiny delight, but as I planted these only last year and there are already signs of happy expansion, these may spread more quickly. They have darling pale leaves that stand out against the soil and delicate butterfly flowers.