Plant Profiles Wintersweet

Wintersweet is not the most impressive shrub in the garden throughout most of the year, plus it can take a few years to become established. This changes, however, in the winter once it has taken hold in your garden and when everything else in your landscape is dead. This is when wintersweet comes to life.

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) is a native of China and can be found growing high in the mountains of Hubei and Sichuan. In your garden, though, you will want to find it growing against a wall, preferably a south-facing wall. Wintersweet can grow to be 10-feet-tall if it has a wall up which it can climb. The wall serves another purpose, too. The more heat wintersweet can absorb during the summer months, the better it will bloom in the winter. Planting it against a wall will enable it to take in extra heat, especially at night. Make sure that it gets full sun, either on the south-facing wall or on a west-facing one. Dig a large planting hole and work in a lot of organic matter. Be sure to mulch your wintersweet well, too. You should, also, water it regularly – especially during its first year – but do not over water. Wintersweet takes a long time to become established and start to bloom. In fact, it can take 3-7 years before it will ever bloom; therefore, patience is a virtue. You should, therefore, refrain from pruning your wintersweet, which can delay its blooming. Once it has started blooming, you can prune it as needed. Propagate by layering in the late summer and realize that it may take up to two years before you have new plants. Also, it is not recommended to try growing wintersweet from seed, since this method is not always that reliable.

During the spring and summer months, wintersweet has blue-green, pointed leaves that are 2-5 inches long. These drop off in the fall. The blooms make their appearance usually in November and December in the southern part of the United States and in January and February further north. The flowers are yellow with purple centers. Both the flowers and the branches are scented, and just one flowering branch clipped and brought indoors can fill your entire house with fragrance.

Brighten up your winter garden with a wintersweet. You might have to wait a few years before it matures and reaches its full glory, but you will be glad you did. Just imagine – fragrant blooms … in winter.

Phillips, Roger and Rix, Martyn. Scented Plants. NY, NY: Random House, 1998, pp. 8-9.
Roth, Susan A. New Complete Guide to Gardening. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books, 1997, p. 175.