As Samantha once wisely told Miranda, “Women with candles have replaced women with cats as the new sad thing.” With apologies to Jo Malone, little scented jars of aromatherapeutic wax have no place in our homes, nor do those weird, long sticky things that go in bottles of dodgy scented liquid. Overpriced candles are the ultimate generic I-forgot-to-get-my-assistant-a-gift gift, and they need not adorn your hotel room to make it feel homey. (Does anyone actually do that? I imagine legions of skinny fashion girls trudging through airports with overweight suitcases filled with ambience [candles, scarves, etc] to remind them that they never should have left in the first place.)
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Scent, however, holds a vitally important place in our homes. It is inextricably linked with memory, the most evocative of all the senses and a more effective form of time travel than the best historical novel. Nowhere is scent more transporting than in the garden, where the fragrance of spring cherry blossom can lift the burden of winter and a summer rose can make you swoon. But sublime fragrance isn’t exclusive to the kinder months, and at this time of year, we do have olfactory options beyond pine boughs. Winter fragrance abounds; place it close to your house, as the middle of a blizzard is not the ideal time to wander about the garden snipping blossom to bring indoors.
“You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.”
- Irish Melodies (1807) ‘Farewell! –– but whenever’,Thomas Moore (1779–1852)
Hamamelis, also known as witch hazel, is an underused large shrub/small tree that provides stunning interest every month of the year. Very unusually, the height of its beauty is mid-winter, when its little firecracker blooms explode into being on a leafless tree. H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel) has golden-yellow flowers; h. intermedia ‘Jelena’ is covered in russet orange blooms; h. intermedia ‘Diane’ proffers coppery red ones.
All are scented spicily and crisply (they smell of witch hazel, go figure), and when the leaves emerge in spring, they are fat and heart-shaped, totally opposite in shape to the spidery little flowers. Hamamelis is excellent underplanted with crocus, a tiny winter beauty that can also be naturalized in a lawn. Once the growing season begins, don’t start mowing the lawn until the crocus foliage has died back.
Crocus longiflorus is pale lavender with orange stamens and has a sweet, honey scent. The blooms emerge between October and December.
Crocus imperati imperati is another lavender Mediterranean native and blooms in winter and early spring. Its scent is also musky and honeyed and is well worth stooping down to experience.
Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) is even more fragrant than witch hazel and has an equally luminescent yellow blossom. It does need some winter chill, so LA you’re out of luck, but you can console yourself with the night-blooming jasmine surrounding your hot tubs. Chimonanthus will eventually reach 10–15 feet in height, but it will do so slowly.
Underplant it with Galanthus, the beautiful little snowdrop. In milder winter regions, choose g. elwesii; in Europe and Asia choose g. nivalis. Galanthus is very small and delicate; plant it as a carpet. It’s excellent under camellias, the best of which are also fragrant, such as Camellia sinensis (the tea plant). Another exquisite little camellia-underplanting friend is lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), which to my utmost chagrin does not grow successfully in California or other warm regions. Its fragrance is sweetly divine, and the plant makes a gorgeous little carpet under rhododendrons, Pieris (confusingly called Lily-of-the-Valley plant) or evergreens. It’s a heavenly choice in Northern Europe, Canada and the North and East of the US, though it can be invasive, so as with all plants, choose a locale thoughtfully. And don’t let your dogs or children (or self) eat it, as it’s poisonous.
Finally, I leave you with news of a bottled fragrance that does pass muster in my books. Recently opened in Berlin is Frau Tonis Parfum, a tiny and chic little fragrance boutique. (I love internal rhyme.) No. 10 on their list of scents is called ‘Linden Tree Berlin’ and thus earns a place of affection in my heart. It is described as “an olfactory ramble along Berlin’s most famous street. Fresh green foliage paired with the unctuous sweetness of linden blossoms and subtle honey notes make this an unforgettable eau de parfum transporting anyone who smells it back to Berlin.” And after all, who doesn’t want to smell like a German boulevard?