It is February, and our gardens are just beginning to wake up.
In this unsettled time of year with regular frosts and frequent rain interspersed with brilliant sunny afternoons, many plants are still dormant or are just emerging from winter’s sleep. Not many plants look their best in this awkward period between winter and spring.
Not so of variegated winter daphne (Daphne odorata aureomarginata) and sweet box (Sarcococca). Not only does their evergreen foliage shine in winter and glisten in the rain, but both of these small shrubs have a divine fragrance that perfumes the air on warmish afternoons.
If fragrant shrubs are not enough and you desire a beautifully fragrant tree, the loquat (Eriobotrya) is more known for its fruits and less known for its delightfully fragrant blooms this time of year.
Most daphnes are evergreen and fragrant. Winter daphne has the benefits of being a very convenient size (up to 4 feet), requiring no maintenance and having deep green leaves outlined with yellow that are handsome year-round. They require shade and can thrive in fairly deep shade or on the eastern side of a house.
Daphnes need good drainage and don’t thrive in heavy clay. If you are growing them in heavy soil, it must be amended with compost, and they should be sited where water does not stand.
They are drought-resistant and heat-tolerant and grow in the hot Central Valley as well as in cool coastal areas where they can take more sun.
They should not be overly watered in summer.
However handsome they are year-round, in February and March these quiet, small shrubs really come to life when they bloom. The clustered buds are deep pink and even before they open are very attractive against the yellow variegation. The blooms are clustered white with pink reverse on the petals and are profuse on the plant.
On frosty mornings, the perfume is not as noticeable, but in the afternoons, the fragrance wafts over a large area and is surprisingly pervasive for such a small shrub. A sprig cut and brought inside will perfume a whole room.
All parts of daphnes are poisonous and are deer-resistant.
Sweet box (Sarcococca) is another no-maintenance, slow-growing shrub that looks great year-round but is at its best in a rainy winter when its waxy leaves glisten.
Lacking variegation, the narrow, wavy leaves are always neat, but they are not interesting except when it is raining and when the plant is in bloom. The cream-colored flowers are highlighted by dark leaves and are daintily clustered and attractive but not super-showy.
Bloom begins in January and continues through February.
Like daphne, sweet box is intensely fragrant and makes a good winter cut flower. The scent wafts and is better enjoyed from a distance of at least several feet rather than by smelling close up. They are wonderful placed next to a walkway.
Sweet box is very useful for the most deeply shaded situations and will grow where many plants fail, though it can tolerate more sunny situations near the coast. It is very drought tolerant when established.
There are two similar shrubby species: S. confusa and S. ruscifolia. The S. confusa has black fruit, and the S. ruscifolia has red berries and is smaller with a perfect arching growth habit. Sarcococca rusciflora will grow in dryish conditions provided it is in full shade.