You are unlikely to find too many brightly-coloured, showy blooms at this time of year, but there are still plenty of shrubs to cheer up the season with more delicate flowers, and amazingly, so many of them have a sweet fragrance that can take you by surprise as you walk round the garden.
The pink-blossomed Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ often starts flowering before the leaves turn yellow and fall in November, brightening many cold weeks both sides of Christmas. It is a versatile shrub, which, if clipped regularly, can be kept to a manageable size suitable for a hedge or screen, when its perfume is breath-taking, and will thrive in most soils and positions, even full shade.
No winter garden should be without Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’, a neat, compact evergreen that begins to show colour sometimes as early as October, with clusters of deep pink buds opening to pink, heavily scented flowers in late winter and early spring. Again, it is happy in full shade; it makes a delightful container specimen for an awkward corner, and planted en masse it will make one of the best ground cover subjects you can find. It requires little or no pruning, but can be clipped over once a year only, when the flowers fade, if a really bushy specimen is required.
Many fragrant winter-flowering shrubs have yellow flowers, and one of the best for architectural value, scent and flower form is Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’. Ideal as a front garden shrub where vandalism could be a problem, it has showy, thick, prickly leaves and a narrow habit, so can be planted as a taller specimen among shorter plants, or near a door, where its strong, lily-of-the-valley perfume can be best appreciated. The bright yellow flowers also resemble those of lily-of-the-valley; they sometimes appear as early as mid-autumn and continue to delight until mid or late spring in some seasons. Again, it is not necessary to prune regularly, although an occasional hard cut-back when the last flowers have dropped will keep it well-clothed and nicely shaped. However, left unpruned it will usually set purple berries, much enjoyed by birds. It will shed some of its oldest leaves throughout the year – these can be very useful as a mulch where slugs and snails and cats are a problem!
Another yellow winter flowerer, the witch hazel (hamamelis) could possibly be considered the Rolls Royce of winter shrubs. The variety ‘Boskoop’ starts showing flower buds in early December, and by January is covered in large, curiously-shaped, scented flowers with reddish centres. This variety has a larger leaf than many other witch hazels, and these colour up well in the autumn. It will make a large shrub or small tree in time, but can also be grown for several years in a tub of lime-free potting compost.
To get the best from your witch hazel, it pays to give it the conditions it likes – a humus-rich, slightly acid, moist soil at the edge of a shrubbery or woodland. Dig in plenty of leaf mould before planting and mulch regularly to conserve moisture.
It isn’t just flowers that give fragrance during the hardest months – many conifers give off a sweet, pine-y smell if brushed against. Among the most pleasing of these is thuja, which emits a characteristic scent if the branches are crushed, whatever time of year. One of the best garden conifers is Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Smaragd’. This makes a medium-sized specimen if planted singly, but possibly its best use is as a screen. It grows more slowly than many similar conifers, so may not need trimming for several years, when it will make an interesting-shaped hedge, broad and bushy from the base, tapering as it grows to form a slim top – and all with its lovely foliage perfume.