- Wintersweet Plant Care: Learn About Wintersweet Growing Conditions
- What is Wintersweet?
- Wintersweet Growing Conditions
- Wintersweet or odorous Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, Chimonanthus fragrans
- Bush of the family Calycanthaceae
- Chimonanthus: Wintersweet
- Facts: Wintersweet
- Chimonanthus praecox
- Tip of the Week — 1/5/09
Wintersweet Plant Care: Learn About Wintersweet Growing Conditions
Wintersweet is a modest little shrub that is full of surprises. It shrugs its way through the normal growing season with only green foliage as ornament. In the middle of winter, it bursts into blossom and fills the garden with its honeyed fragrance. If you are considering putting wintersweet in the landscape and want some tips on wintersweet plant care, read on.
What is Wintersweet?
Wintersweet shrubs (Chimonanthus praecox) are very popular ornamentals in their native land of China. They were introduced to Japan in the 17th century where the plant is called Japanese allspice. Wintersweet is also cultivated in Japan, Korea, Europe, Australia and the United States.
Wintersweet is deciduous and, although considered a shrub, can grow into a rather small tree of around 15 feet tall (5 m.). It is known for flowering in the middle of winter in sites with appropriate wintersweet growing conditions.
The leaves of this shrub start out green but yellow and drop in late autumn. Then, months later, blossoms appear in early winter on bare branches. The flowers are unusual. Their petals are waxy and butter-yellow with touches of maroon on the inside.
If you plant wintersweet in the landscape, you will find that the smell from the fragrant flowers is powerful and delightful. Some say wintersweet flowers have the most beautiful perfume of any plant. However, after the flowers cease, the plant fades into the background. It doesn’t really offer any other ornamental features. For this reason, be sure to plant wintersweet where it can blend in as a background plant.
Wintersweet Growing Conditions
If you decide to put wintersweet in the landscape, you’ll need to give some thought to wintersweet growing conditions. Wintersweet shrubs are flexible and generally easy to care for. When you plant wintersweet, opt for young plants instead of seeds. Wintersweet shrubs grown from seed can take up to 14 years to flower.
Plant your wintersweet shrubs in a sheltered sunny location. The shrubs thrive in well-drained soil and accept either acidic or alkaline soils. If your soil doesn’t drain well, amend it with compost before you plant wintersweet shrubs. This makes wintersweet plant care much easier.
Part of wintersweet plant care is pruning. When you are caring for wintersweet in the landscape, trim the oldest branches to the ground after the plant has stopped blooming.
Wintersweet or odorous Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, Chimonanthus fragrans
Bush of the family Calycanthaceae
Etymology: Chimonanthus comes from Greek Cheimonas, which means “winter”, and anthos, “flower”, in other words “which flourishes in winter”, and it is well the case of this shrub.
Praecox is a Latin word which became “precocious”, in reference to winter blossoming.
Origin: the genus Chimonanthus includes 6 species of deciduous or persistent shrubs, native to hilly forests of China, between 500 and 1100m of altitude. It was introduced into England by 1766.
Habitat: Wintersweet makes the best of almost all soils, even calcareous, but cool, humus and well drained, but it prefers siliceous soils. It prefers a sunny position, sheltered from the wind. Wintersweet tolerates spray.
Hardiness: zone 6 (until -23 °). Under very cold climate, it is recommended to plant it against a wall which will return the heat of the sun, this to favour growth and blossoming.
Height: 3-4 m tall.
Rate of Growth: slow.
Shape: upright. Branches are raised then drooping.
Trunk: It includes a swelling of the low part (called “Caudex”) constituting a body of water storage for the plant. It can reach nearly 1m in diameter..
Foliage: deciduous. Elliptical, opposite, simple leaves, acuminate, clearer-veined. They are 7 – 15 cm long on 2 – 12 cm broad. They are tough and harsh, and turn yellow in autumn.
Flowers: small flowers (1,5-4 cm in diameter), in the form of cut, axillaries, pendulous, waxen, sweet-scented (hyacinth or honey smell), bisexuals. They are formed by pale yellow waxy petals and almost translucent , 5-7stamens.
They appear in winter, from December to March, on the branches of the previous year.
Fruits: False woody fruits beige made darker of 6 cm long on 2,5 cm in diameter,urn-shaped with a narrower mouth in the apex, containing 5-8 true fruits bright brown, coriaceous of 2 cm long on 0,5-0,7 cm in diameter. These containers, when dry, often persist one year on the shrub.
Toxicity: the seed contains a toxic alkaloid, a calycanthine, which can cause convulsions.
Wintersweet is a shrub appreciated for its fragrant winter blossoming. Its caudex allows an original use in dry rocks open-air.
In the Chinese traditional pharmacopeia the bark and roots were used to treat on influenza, as well as on rheumatisms. We extract from flowers an oil used in perfumery in Japan.
by seedling (in May), cutting (in July-August) or layering (in spring). It needs between 5 and 20 years for a plant from seedling to flourish. The layering is done by laying down twigs in the ground, before slightly incised at the rod in the ground to encourage the emergence of roots.
Advices of maintenance:
Yellow leaves are a chlorosis sign which it is necessary to correct with a watering based on iron chelate, or even a replacement of substrate.
Pruning is useless, because Wintersweet flourishes on the ancient wood. If a pruning is really necessary, to limit its expansion, it is necessary to perform it after blossoming.
Chimonanthus campanulatus: shrub with persistent foliage and branches slightly pubescent, 3-5 m tall, yellow flowers without fragrance.
Chimonanthus grammatus: shrub with persistent foliage, 4-5 m tall, yellow flowers.
Chimonanthus nitens: shrub with persistent foliage, 2-6 m tall, small yellow flowers very pale or white-yellowish.
Chimonanthus salicifolia, Wintersweet with willow leaves: meets in China in the province of Kiang-Si.
Chimonanthus zhejangensis or Chimonanthus du Zhejiang: shrub with persistent foliage.
Chimonanthus praecox var.grandiflorus ‘ Concolor ‘ has daffodil flowers.
Chimonanthus praecox var.grandiflorus ‘ Luteus ‘ has flowers gold yellow and crimson red.
Genus: Chimonanthus (kai-moan-ANTH-us) In Greek: cheimon= winter, anthos=flower
Origin: Native to China – Wintersweet has been cultivated in China for over 1,000 years. It is valued for use in medicine, and its essential oils are used in cosmetics, perfumery and to flavor teas. In China, Wintersweet flowers have been used to scent linens in the same way that Lavender flowers have been used elsewhere.
Characteristics: 6 species of Chimonanthus exist, but only one is commonly available in nurseries, Chimonanthus praecox. Spectacular nodding, waxy butter yellow flowers accented with maroon on the inside are very fragrant in January-February. There is truly nothing like it. Leaves are lance-shaped, green & deciduous with mild gold fall color before dropping. Sadly, the plant is rather non-descript in all other seasons, but works fine as a background plant.
Size: Large, upright fountain shape shrub, grows 10-15’ x 10-15’
Culture: Sun or part shade, adapts to acidic or alkaline soils but prefers better soil drainage than most Portland soils provide. Amend planting bed with compost to improve drainage. Prune oldest branches to the ground after bloom. To rejuvenate old plants, prune to 12” after bloom. Hardy Z7, protect in temps under 10f
Problems: The lack of multi-season interest is the worst of it.
- Attributes: Genus: Chimonanthus Species: praecox Family: Calycanthaceae Country Or Region Of Origin: China North-Central, China South-Central & China Southeast Wildlife Value: Attracts pollinators. Birds feed on the fruit. Play Value: Edible fruit Fragrance Wildlife Food Source Dimensions: Height: 10 ft. 0 in. – 13 ft. 0 in. Width: 8 ft. 0 in. – 12 ft. 0 in.
- Whole Plant Traits: Plant Type: Shrub Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Habit/Form: Multi-stemmed Multi-trunked Growth Rate: Slow Texture: Coarse
- Cultural Conditions: Light: Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day) Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day) Soil Drainage: Good Drainage Moist Usda Plant Hardiness Zone: 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
- Fruit: Fruit Color: Brown/Copper Fruit Value To Gardener: Edible Display/Harvest Time: Spring Fruit Type: Achene Fruit Description: non-showy fruit. Urn-shaped receptacle bearing 5-8 bean-shaped achenes, non-ornamental.
- Flowers: Flower Color: Gold/Yellow Purple/Lavender Red/Burgundy White Flower Value To Gardener: Fragrant Flower Bloom Time: Spring Winter Flower Size: < 1 inch Flower Description: 0.7-1 in. waxy, yellowish-white, cupped flowers in winter to early spring; fragrant; purple centers; occurs on previous season’s growth; inner tepals brown or purple, outer tepals yellow, fragrant, borne in axils of previous summer’s wood, on leafless branches.
- Leaves: Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Leaf Color: Green Leaf Feel: Rough Deciduous Leaf Fall Color: Gold/Yellow Leaf Type: Simple Leaf Arrangement: Opposite Leaf Shape: Cuneate Lanceolate Ovate Leaf Margin: Entire Hairs Present: No Leaf Length: 3-6 inches Leaf Description: Leaves are green and the veins can be easily seen since the vein are a lighter color. Opposite, simple, lustrous, dark green leaves; 2.5-6 in. long; yellow-green fall color. Ovate-lanceolate, entire, acuminate, cuneate, rough to the touch.
- Bark: Bark Color: Black Dark Brown Bark Description: Bark is dark brown to black.
- Stem: Stem Color: Brown/Copper Gray/Silver Orange Stem Is Aromatic: No Stem Description: Squarish, shiny gray-brown, covered with orange-brown lenticels; cane-like growth.
- Landscape: Landscape Location: Recreational Play Area Landscape Theme: Children’s Garden Cottage Garden Pollinator Garden Winter Garden Attracts: Pollinators Songbirds
Tip of the Week — 1/5/09
Posted in Gardening Tips on January 5 2009, by Sonia Uyterhoeven
Fragrant Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox)
Sonia Uyterhoeven is Gardener for Public Education at The New York Botanical Garden.
They say that nature is about observation, but sometimes it is about just following your nose. Chimonanthus praecox is one such example. It is an underused winter flowering shrub that is often eclipsed by the more popular Hamamelis (witch hazel).
Fragrant wintersweet is a deciduous shrub that is hardy to zone 6b. It tends to be a multi-stemmed, loose-stemmed specimen with a fountain or vase-like shape. It does not have the structural composure that witch hazel possesses. It can get a little gangly with age. Happily, this 10- to 15-foot shrub can be severely cut back after flowering.
The main feature of this shrub is its fragrant winter bloom. It just started flowering in the Home Gardening Center (it’s planted behind the Sensory Garden) in mid-December and should remain in flower through the cold winter months.
It has small half-inch to 1-inch long flowers that look like shredded little cups. The inflorescence (floral structure) is broken down into layers. The outer layer has flat strap-like, waxy, yellowish-white, translucent tepals. The smaller tepals on the inner layer are burgundy. They are also translucent and remind me of what a first coat of burgundy nail polish looks like on your nails. What’s a tepal? It is the botanist’s name for when the flower part (sepals and petals) all look undifferentiated.
Never mind the anatomy, how about the fragrance? It has a pungent smell that is spicy and exotic. It reminds me of ylang ylang, the type of fragrance that gets trapped inside your nostrils.
With its pungent perfume and its poetic little flowers, can we then speculate on how Chimonanthus is pollinated? The general rule of thumb is that trees and shrubs with small, inconspicuous flowers are most likely wind pollinated. They don’t need to put on a show to attract a pollinator; they simply need to extend their branches so their pollen can get caught in a passing gust of wind.
Woody specimens with large, showy flowers and enticing perfumes tend to be insect pollinated. They lure their potential pollinators with sweet smells and sugary nectars. But who in their right mind would be flying about in the middle of winter?
When we look to other winter-flowering shrubs for clues, we are given none. Members of the Hamamelidaceae family such as witch hazel produce fragrant flowers during the winter. These woody plants are wind pollinated, although, curiously enough, fossil evidence indicates the possibility they were once insect pollinated.
Chimonanthus praecox is in the Calycanthaceae family. Members of this family are generally either fly or beetle pollinated. Small, open flowers tend to be fly pollinated while larger, intricate flowers are designed to trap beetles.
Is this exotically fragrant shrub then fly pollinated? The burgundy markings on the inner tepals and its graceful open whorl-like floral structure would suit that pollinator. But in the middle of winter?
Maybe in its native China there are small hovering flies or beetles buzzing around when the shrub is in flower. Here in New York, however, we have decided that Chimonanthus praecox is “nose-pollinated.” That is, it’s fragrance is so enticing that once you dip your nose in for a small whiff you will be back for more.
Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox).
Photo by Paul Jones.
By Paul Jones
Curator, Culberson Asiatic Arboretum
To be precocious is to develop earlier than might be expected. In the garden this adjective may be used to describe certain plants that come into flower while Mother Nature is still enforcing the chill of mid-winter.
Witchhazels (Hamamelis spp.) are well-known shrubs that often display this tendency. Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), another. A less familiar shrub, but one that is certainly a favorite among those privy to its charms, is Chimonanthus praecox, or wintersweet.
As the scientific name implies, wintersweet is precocious (the Latin praecox meaning early ripening). And as the common name implies, the flowers are sweetly fragrant—in the winter. And fragrant it is! As one person’s comments I read about this species put it, “there is truly nothing like it.” Just delightful.
Wintersweet is native to China and belongs to the plant family Calycanthaceae—the same family that our prized spring flowering native sweetshrub (aka sweet Betsy or Carolina allspice) Calycanthus floridus belongs to. Wintersweet has translucent multi-petaled yellow flowers, about an inch or so in diameter when fully opened, produced in great abundance. Typically the flowers remain unscathed through some pretty cold temperatures.
Winter flowering shrubs are often intensely fragrant, presumed so because of the scarcity of pollinators during the cold. Perhaps humans are displacing hibernating insects as the primary pollinator of wintersweet as we greedily bury our noses deep into flower after flower, savoring its most glorious scent.
We’ll have wintersweet and more at our Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, from 8 a.m. to noon. Hope to see you here!
This plant highlight originally appeared in Duke Gardens’ Flora magazine.
Fall Plant Sale details:
Date: Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017
Time: 8 a.m.-noon
Membership benefit: Duke Gardens members get 10% off! Join online or on site.
Pets not permitted
Wagons + boxes: Our supply is limited; please bring your own if possible, and you’ll have more time to spend gathering beautiful plants.
Please see our event page for more information, and we’d love for you to spread the word on Facebook. Thank you!