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