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Sarcococca and Daphne – the stars of my February garden

by Rebecca Sweet

SarcococcaHere we are February 1st, and my garden couldn’t be smelling any sweeter!  I wanted to share with you two of my winter superstars as they’re some of my favorites for adding heavenly fragrance to this typically cold and bleak month.  In my temperate Zone 9 garden, there’s still a few random leaves hanging on to their deciduous stems for dear life.  But with each gentle breeze they’re quickly losing their grip, leaving behind one skeletal shrub after another.  Thank heavens for my evergreen plants, as now is the time when they take their turn on the stage, no longer having to play meager supporting roles in my garden’s ever-changing performance.  While these shrubs may be nothing new to many gardeners, sadly they’re often overlooked. However I can’t tell you how many times people walking by stop to ask me ‘what smells so good in your garden?’

One of my all-time favorite evergreen shrubs is the Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia).  Hardy in zones 7-9, it has year-round shiny, small, dark green leaves that sit there and look happy every day of the year.  In the shade, no less.  In deep shade, no less.  I tell people this plant will grow in a cave, it’s that much of a shade lover.  And while most of the year it’s not much more than a lovely 3′x3′ mound of dark green, its winter scent is TO DIE FOR!

When designing gardens, I always try and plant a Sarcococca near a door or front pathway so its winter scent can be best appreciated by all who come and go throughout the day.  My mailman loves my Sarcococca and looks forward to it every year (in fact, I’ll sometimes clip off a small branch for him to perfume his mail truck while he makes his rounds).  The teeny-tiny flowers begin to make their appearance in late January, and come into their own right about now.  While they’re not much to look at, BOY do they make up for it with their fragrance!  I describe it as a combination of Jasmine and Honeysuckle, with a little bit of hope thrown in.  It always catches people by surprise, too.  In fact, just the other day I was sitting at my front table when I watched a solicitor walk up to my front door to drop off a flyer of some sort.  As they turned to walk away, I saw them stop in their tracks and turn back again to walk over to my Sarcococca to see what was smelling so good!  When the flowers start to fade, the plant will develop pearl-sized black or red berries – but don’t worry, they’re not super messy as birds will usually eat most of them before they drop.  As if its winter scent weren’t enough of a reason to buy this plant, it’s also deer resistant and somewhat drought tolerant, too.
DaphneWhile the Sarcococca is busy perfuming one half of my garden, my Daphne is busy taking care of the other half.  While I know lots of gardeners who have given up on temperamental Daphne (she hates to be fussed with – don’t even think of transplanting her fragile roots, or overwatering, or underwatering her) I encourage everyone to keep trying until they get it right.  Once they find the perfect spot (just a hint of morning sun, with just a hint of water) they’ll be rewarded with the sweetest smelling, rosy pink flowers for weeks at a time. The dog walkers on my street always seem to linger at the front of my garden this time of year, and I know it’s because Daphne lures them over with her delicious scent.  Another evergreen shrub, the ‘Marginata’ variety is my favorite as each green leaf is rimmed with a thin line of gold, allowing it to pop visually in the shade.  And while Daphne can be a little pricey (due to her temperamental nature, no doubt) she’s well worth the price.  In my opinion, any plant that encourages people to keep the faith – spring’s on its way! is worth its weight in gold.

Is there a February favorite in your garden?  If so, please share – I’d love to know what it is!



Kaveh February 12, 2013 at 9:15 pm

I just designed a garden and included a dozen Sarcococca. I hope my client loves them as much as you do!

Rebecca Sweet February 13, 2013 at 8:21 am

I have no doubt she’ll think of you each winter as she inhales their sweet fragrance!

Kathy Griffin February 12, 2013 at 3:23 am

Just discovered your site and am enjoying it immensely. I live about an hour north of Austin, Texas and will soon be moving into my little craftsman home I am building. When finished, I hope people will wonder if this was actually one of the first homes in the area (I’m a vintage buff ;) I’m always on the lookout for low-maintsinance, deer-resistant plants that will tolerate our hot summers! Loved your pictures of the fireplace mantle in the garden( thank you, Pinterest!); I have a vintage one in the garage and can’t wait to try it! One question, did you treat yours with anything to help protect it from the weather, or do you accept that in a few years it will decay and need to be replaced? Thanks for your open sharing and encouragement!

Rebecca Sweet February 12, 2013 at 7:57 am

Hi Kathy, Congratulations on building what will undoubtedly be a charming, charming home! We didn’t treat the old fireplace – it was in such poor shape to begin with, so I figured it’ll need to be replaced at some point. If it was in really great shape I probably would have, though. I’d love to see what you end up doing with yours!!

Layanee February 11, 2013 at 5:34 am

A February garden favorite? Perhaps the Dwarf Alberta Spruce which adds a bit of interest to the forlorn February New England landscape. Or, it could be the begonias which are in the indoor garden. One must find treasures where one can.

Dee February 9, 2013 at 8:14 pm

I would love to smell those. Heck, I’d love to visit you in your garden. See you soon.~~Dee

Rebecca Sweet February 10, 2013 at 11:49 am

Can’t wait to see you, Dee!

Yelena Lando February 4, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Hello Rebecca,I live in Arizona, and now i have full blooming my favorite emu- bush,/ now it is gold emy/ , it was started blooming 1 month ago and it will blooming all next month, my valentain – emy started blooming also, but it is still very small bush with very delicated flowers. I fall in love with emu- bushes since 2007 and since that I am looking for new variety of them every time when I go to Boyson Thompson Arboretum, AZ,they have the best collection of emu in Arizona.

Rebecca Sweet February 5, 2013 at 7:37 am

Thanks Yelena, I hadn’t heard of the Emu bush but after looking it up I see it’s a really beautiful (and tough!) shrub. Thanks for telling me about this (new to me) plant!

Karen O'Brien February 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm

My February favorite is Edgeworthia chrysantha (here is a good picture:
Edgeworthia is deciduous where I live (U.S. zone 6) and has sculpural blooms hanging down in little dusty white bells that open into clusters of yellow super-scented flowers. Heavenly on a rare warm February day.

Rebecca Sweet February 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm

I am SO glad to find out about this shrub – it looks absolutely charming!! Thanks for the heads-up, Karen!

Charlie February 2, 2013 at 6:24 pm

I am in zone 8 and have planted Sarcococca at the back door and on the side of the house. Both spots are just finishing flowering. It is heavenly. The Daphne’s will start shortly. It is hard to have favorites in the garden, but they would be close. Loved the photos, thank you for sharing.

Jo Pomeroy February 2, 2013 at 9:16 am

My new sarcococcas are blooming! And growing…even during the winter. Amazing. I am taking a centerpiece to my daughter’s house today for a Super Bowl party tomorrow where there will be lots of sweaty male type people cheering on the 49ers. I think I’ll add some sarcococca–can’t hurt, right? My Daphne is just starting to stop us in our tracks in the backyard. My favorite winter blooming plant is my magnolia…starting to bloom now, silly thing.

Rebecca Sweet February 2, 2013 at 9:22 am

Hooray for your new Sarcococca, Jo! And your idea of using them to mask less-than-desirable smells is a fantastic one! I have a few sprigs in my kitchen and when I walked out this morning my entire house smells delicious. My daughter came home yesterday from a 2-day school retreat and was with a couple of girlfriends. They walked in one girl turned to my daughter and said “your house always smells so good – like flowers or something”. I try and convert them wherever I can…. ;)

Laura February 2, 2013 at 7:29 am

Three years ago a friend gave me some Sarcococca stems she had rooted so I planted them in my garden. This is the second winter and they look great and now blooming. You are right about them growing in a cave, here in Marin I run into a huge planting under redwoods and they looked great. In fact I took some cuttings that are about to root and will plant them in other areas. I find though that they grow really slowly, is that right?
Daphne is another plant I love, but don’t have in my garden until now. However I am concerned that the spot where I was thinking of planting it is too wet. I might have to reconsider.

A plant that is doing great in my garden is euphorbia, they are all forming the inflorescence now, love the colors. No smell though.

And my succulents, oh my! The winter for some meant great growth, they look amazing now. I am obsessed with them! I wish I had a nursery that carried more near my town.

As far as I am concerned, spring is already here, I can see weekly changes in the garden, everything is awakening. Love living in California for this reason, winter is really short.

Rebecca Sweet February 2, 2013 at 8:51 am

HI Laura,

Yes, Sarcococca are really slow to start growing which is why I always buy them in 5-gallon containers for clients. It seems as soon as they hit the 3-year mark, though, they start to really take off. Daphne is pretty fussy about wet feet and since they’re fairly expensive I’d recommend another spot (or a container! – they do really well in a large pot and are so beautiful). I agree about spring already being here – I even see tiny little leaves forming on lots of deciduous plants. Hooray! I am NOT a winter gal! :)

Laura February 2, 2013 at 9:08 am

Third year is the charm, you are right! It looks like the plant is taking off now.

I like your suggestion of keeping the Daphne in a pot.

Happy Spring!

Rebecca Sweet February 2, 2013 at 9:10 am

Happy Spring to you, too, Laura! p.s. If you ever want to treat yourself, you should take a field trip to Succulent Gardens in Watsonville. It’s a bit of a drive, but you would find yourself in succulent heaven. Row and row and row of fantastic succulents, filled with fellow succulent lovers such as yourself!

Kris Peterson February 1, 2013 at 6:43 pm

You’ve reminded me how much I loved the Sarcococca I had at my old house. I’m going to have to hunt it down to try at my “new” (2 year-old) house. Although I’m just 15 miles south of my former location, the summers here are as much as 10 degrees hotter but, maybe, if I tuck it into deeper shade, it’ll survive. This February, in my current location in California’s South Bay area, my favorite bloomer is Echium handiense ‘Pride of Fuerteventura’ with its bright blue flowers.

Rebecca Sweet February 2, 2013 at 8:53 am

Oh yes, Kris,you should definitely find a new spot for one in your new house! Echiums are so beautiful, aren’t they? Have you ever seen the ones blooming all throughout Golden Gate Park? They’ve established impressive colonies there (as you drive through it on 19th) and I often wonder how many fender benders they’ve caused when in full bloom….

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