Some of the best scents in the gar­den are to be found in mid­win­ter, usu­ally from the likes of win­ter­sweet and daphne.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

Kerry Car­man is sweet on sweet box

But there is one highly fra­grant and use­ful-for-so-many-pur­poses lit­tle shrub that has slipped un­der the radar for far too long. Sweet box or sar­co­cocca (from the Greek sarx which means flesh and cocca mean­ing berry) is also known as Christ­mas box in the North­ern Hemi­sphere be­cause of its scented flow­er­ing sea­son. This lit­tle­known ever­green is one of the most ap­peal­ing and trou­ble-free or­na­men­tals for the gar­den.

There is much plea­sure to be had from a cou­ple of these small, tidy bushes scent­ing the ap­proach to your door in win­ter.

They of­fer one of the very best win­ter fra­grances, mak­ing them ideal also for in­door dec­o­ra­tion. Just one jug­ful will scent an en­tire room.

Sar­co­coc­cas thrive in deep­est shade where lit­tle else will grow – and dry shade at that, one of the most dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions to cul­ti­vate.

Nor are they fussy as to soil. They will grow any­where ex­cept in hot bright sun­light which may scorch the fo­liage.

The glossy, dark green, at­trac­tively shaped leaves – more ap­peal­ing than box to my eyes – re­flect light and glis­ten like sun­light on wa­ter. They are ex­cel­lent for flo­ral work, last­ing three weeks in wa­ter.

The very nu­mer­ous flow­ers have no petals and are lit­tle more than tufts, and clus­ters of sta­mens and stig­mas are held in the ax­ils of the leaves, but the warm sweet­ness they dis­pense on the still win­ter air can scent a con­sid­er­able area. The berries on most forms are held on the plant at the same time as the flow­ers, ap­pear­ing and colour­ing up in late au­tumn and per­sist­ing through­out the plants’ bloom time un­til spring.

Sar­co­coc­cas are also a land­scaper’s dream.

Last month, I rec­om­mended to NZ Gar­dener read­ers Vibur­num da­vidii as a low-grow­ing ever­green suited to foun­da­tion plant­ings on south-fac­ing or shady walls.

Sweet box is another good can­di­date for this treat­ment as it will thrive in any soil and in the dens­est shade. For these rea­sons, it is ideal for use as a build­ing’s foot warmer, eas­ing the awk­ward vis­ual tran­si­tion from the ver­ti­cal of a build­ing to hor­i­zon­tal earth.

Drought-tol­er­ant sweet box may also be planted as un­der­lings be­neath large shrubs and trees as well as dark, shaded areas be­tween build­ings and en­try­ways – they thrive in cities – and un­der low branch­ing ev­er­greens such as conifers.

As if that were not enough, these fra­grant lit­tle box cousins – both hail from the box fam­ily Bux­ac­eae – also make won­der­ful dwarf hedges. Rarely ex­ceed­ing 1m in height, they can make a fine – and ex­tremely ap­peal­ing – sub­sti­tute for the dwarf hedg­ing box buxus, espe­cially now that the un­sightly box blight has hit New Zealand.

There are up­wards of 14 species in all but I have only traced a few in New Zealand.

The first I met was

Sar­co­cocca rus­ci­fo­lia var. chi­nen­sis which is the most read­ily avail­able. Planted in a dark shaded house cor­ner at Wylde Green in the UK, this red-berried form had vis­i­tors in­hal­ing with de­lighted sur­prise as they walked by in win­ter, de­mand­ing to know the source of this de­li­cious scent.

The first choice for a dif­fi­cult cor­ner in the gar­den, it is also one of the best forms for hedg­ing, along with Sar­co­cocca

con­fusa as both are eas­ily con­trolled by prun­ing hard after flow­er­ing.

Sar­co­cocca con­fusa was so named be­cause of ini­tial con­fu­sion over its ori­gins. It is now thought to be a hy­brid formed in cul­ti­va­tion. It pro­duces glossy black fruit and blooms ear­lier than Sar­co­cocca

rus­ci­fo­lia for me. It has an ir­re­sistible fra­grance. Sar­co­cocca ori­en­talis is the other one I grow. It has neat dark layers of over­lap­ping, ovate leaves, black berries and the same se­duc­tive scent. Other sar­co­coc­cas to watch out for are

Sar­co­cocca hook­e­ri­ana var. dig­yna ‘Pur­ple Stem’ (the new stems and flow­ers are suf­fused with rosy pur­ple colour) and the smaller (60cm) Sar­co­cocca hook­e­ri­ana var.

hu­milis, a dainty plant with broad leaves. Sar­co­coc­cas can be an im­por­tant, sub­tle back­bone to the win­ter gar­den, as plants which do very well in dry and shady places are rare. They will al­ways be among my favourite shrubs to grow in shaded areas near the house – a habit de­rived from the days when sim­ple plea­sures such as fra­grance to greet your com­ings and go­ings were still deemed im­por­tant.


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