With our warm and, until last week, almost bone-dry winter, shrubs and bulbs are shooting up and out. Lonicera fragrantissima is not a star in the good looks stakes at any time of the year to be honest. It is a brittle, twiggy shrub that sprawls against a wall in one of the driest parts of the garden. But, for a few weeks in early Spring, the lemony fragrance of these tiny, fragile flowers carries on any breeze- and makes it all worthwhile, although they suffer in the rain.
It was collected in China by the redoubtable Robert Fortune, the great Scottish botanist on his plant-collecting expeditions to China during the early 1840s and 50s. There are many plants whose botanical name end in ‘fortunei’ though Lonicera fragrantissima isn’t one of them. Robert Fortune came of humble stock and ended his life having restored the state of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and contributed hugely to the expansion of European interest in oriental botany. Later, as a spy for the East India Company, Fortune also spirited away 20,000 tea plants, seeds and 8 tea experts from the Chinese which enabled the growth of the Himalayan and Ceylon tea economies. As the Dunse History Society said of him, he was one of the ‘lads o’ pairts’ for whom Scotland was famous. Canny, resourceful and clever.
Back in Tostat, it has been so warm that this year the Lonicera still has leaves on it, well, from the knees downwards. If you have less space, but want a winter smell that really does refresh, then Daphne odora Aureomarginata is a better all-year round performer. With waxy, dark green leaves edged with creamy yellow, and a rounded, evergreen form, it makes a very pretty, contained shrub of about 1.5m x 1.5m at full stretch.
I have had mine from when it was six inches tall, and now it is a fully fledged beauty. It is growing in a semi-shaded not-too-dry spot under the wisteria pergola, gets the early morning sun but has afternoon protection in the summer, and is in bogstandard soil, so it really isn’t picky. It is, though, a slow grower, so if you have the cash, it would be an investment to start off with a bigger plant and not have to wait so long.
Right now, the bush is covered with flowers and the fragrance is really powerful, a substantial full-bodied scent which even I can smell. So, all I have to do is to stick my head out of the back door and grab a whiff. Fabulous. And a great hint of Spring to come.