Winter Scents

When the daytime temperature is hovering around freezing, it is hard to appreciate the scented plants in the winter garden, but with temperatures above 10°C / 50°F these last two weeks, I’ve actually been able to notice some of the perfumes of the plants that have to work extra hard to attract pollinators at this time of year.

First up is this Witch Hazel. It gave absolutely glorious autumn shades of rich orange leaves that started very early and now it gives wonderful coppery orange and yellow tipped cellophane-like flowers that give off a delicious scent.

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

It’s difficult to appreciate the flowers against the sugar-cane mulch, but once the low-growing Rhododendrons fill out, these little flowers will really shine against the deep green, sombre leaves.


Next up is the “secret garden” area (which is an overly grand name for garden beds so new, but within a few years it will be an enclosed, cacoon-like space with soft camellia hedges and climbing roses scrambling through them).

Although a small space, this area is the highest part of the garden (1,100m /3,600′ ASL) and has distant views over valleys and other mountains; it is a total sun-trap from late autumn to early spring and it is possibly the most sheltered area of the garden, being surrounded by outbuildings and hedges which also make it largely frost-free and always a few degrees warmer than the rest of the garden.

Here the first of the erlicheer jonquils are already looking towards the season ahead.

When this first started blooming the scent from this one little bulb was heady and sweet, filling the entire space.

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Narcissus

As a couple more of the batch of bulbs opened, the scent was so beautiful and the bright yellow flowers lit up the shadows.

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Early Narcisuss & late Leucojum

I was excited to wait for the subsequent batch to bloom: imagine a dozen of these filling a sheltered 10m² / 110sqft space and the anticipation of scented, sunny days with a hot cup of coffee…and then this opened:

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Double paperwhite – Narcissus tazetta hybrid

The smell alerted me to it: when I entered the enclosed space it was like a thousand stray cats had all used my secret garden as a litter box.

Oh, the putrid ammonia rich urea-like stench. How could something so pretty be so foul?

Needless to say, the top came off, went straight into the bottom of the compost heap and the bulb has been tagged for relocation somewhere where it can be seen and not smelled!

Obviously I am one of those 40% of the population who react badly to Indole (the compound responsible for the smell of paper-whites)!

Happy gardening 🙂

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43 thoughts on “Winter Scents

    • I hope it’s not like me – some people smell the sweet tones, but for others it ranges from really horrible to mildly distasteful….thank goodness for the other nice things!

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  1. Ummm I remember my then mother-in-law complaining about the stench of the flowers I gave her…I thought she was just being her disagreeable self…(in any case she was most disagreeable). 🙂

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  2. Although I’ve heard people complain about paperwhites, I didn’t realize there could be such great differences in how people perceive the scent. I don’t love it but it doesn’t bother me – if I smelled the odor of a litter box used by a 1000 cats, I’d consign the bulbs to the trash bin.

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    • I normally quite like the smell of narcissus, and this one just came in one of those mixed bags, so I thought I’d give it a go. But that one is being banished far from the house: anywhere else in the garden will be breezy so the smell won’t have a chance to linger!

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  3. Lovely to see your winter bulbs and your witch hazel. Paperwhites are always sold here for forcing indoors so I hope they don’t smell like yours! Not a fan of double narcissus anyway, if it was me they would find their way onto the compost heap double quick!

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    • It came in a mixed bag of early white narcissus, and with trying to establish so much garden, I thought ‘what the hell’ I’ll get the mixed bag….well, ‘hell’ is right 🙂

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  4. I love your beautiful Jelena. I totally agree about Paperwhites, they smell disgusting. I am always amazed that people like the smell. And what about hyacinths after the first few days of opening? Rank. And Jasmine growing in the house in a pot? Yuck, overpoweringly disgusting. I have never heard of Indole, I just thought that I had a stronger sense of smell than other people.

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    • Thanks, I love it too. The autumn colour was stunning and these pretty little blossoms are so pretty when the low light shines through the, I tried to get some photos, but it is nigh on impossible to get the focus right. I agree with everyone of your disagreeable smells. Especially the common jasmine. I ripped out 8 skip-bins worth of it where that secret garden is, the look and smell of it in spring was akin to candied, sugary, vomit…..ugggh

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    • It’s funny, the Indole compound is in Gardenias too, but I like that smell (just as paperwhites for you become overpowering, gardenias do the same for me). I like confederate jasmine, but the common chinese jasmine makes me very ill…! It is amazing how different everyone’s reaction can be

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    • The witch hazel are a great addition to the winter garden, their little translucent flowers just invite you closer and then they reward you with a lovely perfume!

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    • Yes, that’s the only reason we get snow and ice so close to Sydney (which is almost a sub-tropical climate)…I will definitely be removing those paperwhites (even though the flowers are pretty)

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  5. Love the description of your secret garden, Matt! Narcissus are the perfect start for such a place 🙂 I am trying some paperwhites this winter for the first time in… I don’t know… 15 or 20 years. I guess I’ll find out which sort I am!

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  6. “Witch Hazel good. Paperwhites BAD!” Noted for future plantings! Daphne odora is the big sniff around here at the moment. It loves our Tassie conditions and the smell drifts for miles. Gorgeous stuff and can’t get enough of that heady fruit floral scent 🙂

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    • Daphne is beautiful!
      It’s about a month away from opening here, but I can’t wait: I’ve planted quite a few different varieties.
      I’m always amazed how tough Daphnes are so long as they are in the right climate and have good drainage. The minute conditions go even slightly one way or the other, they keel over and die!

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      • The do it tough here. No water in summer and there is a poor long suffering specimen on the property that we hacked almost to death before we realised that is was, indeed, a daphne but it still limps along (almost prostrate now) after we topped it when we were hacking into the undergrowth. Beautiful doesn’t always mean delicate and some of the most lovely things are tough as old boots :).

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      • That is true – you are so lucky to have had a daphne recover after hard pruning. Most gardeners tell me they ‘snipped a few stems for a small vase’ and then the whole thing died 🙂

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      • They were babying it I reckon. Daphne odora is a very hardy plant here in Tassie. We get very little rain in summer and the plant I am talking about gets no additional water. It grows in a sandy rocky bit of the garden that is prone to drying out in a big way and is one of the only things still alive in this part of the garden. Maybe I should take cuttings! 😉

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  7. We have grown paperwhites but didn’t find the smell offensive. I’m thinking about getting some fragrant narcissus for planting this fall. I do have a young witchhazel and if I can keep the rabbits away from it I may see some blooms in October or November.

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  8. Fascinating post and collection of comments. Before I read the latter I was recreating the scent of witch hazel in my mind and thinking how much of a favourite and delicious fragrance it is- the Rose of the winter garden. And when I read the comments I found myself in agreement with all of those about narcissi and hyacinths in the house. Rank. I have them on a table outside the kitchen window now but am saddened to find thus summer I’m not liking sweetpeas in the house either….perhaps it’s an age thing? Or just me 😉

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  9. That witch hazel is spectacular in a kind of subtle way. I also love the name of it, wonder why it’s called WH. I agree with you about paperwhites, also hate the smell of those yellow jonquils that lots of people actually pay money for to put inside their houses! Here it’s been a wet and cold winter but now we’ve had a couple of magical sunny days although to my sorrow I haven’t had time to garden.

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    • As far as I can tell, it came from the Wych Elm….as the small branches were also used to divine water sources. But Witch Hazel has a lot of medicinal properties, so it could have come from any number of sources!
      I never put jonquils in the house, I find after a day or two they stink but curiously I like them in the garden. The weather here has returned to normal after the three week mild spell (sub zero nights and days of about 5) They are even predicting some snow this weekend which will be lovely. I hope you get some good gardening time in soon….winter is always my favourite time to be working outdoors

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  10. So pretty and I bet especially appreciated this time of year. I’m with you on the paper whites. I never knew about indole compound. The smell is so disgusting to me that I couldn’t imagine how people could even tolerate it… Never mind like it! Very odd and interestinf

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