March – Quiz: Wintersweet

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWintersweet.

Plants for all seasons bring us midwinter cheer


Little by little the days are starting to get longer, though with spring still a long way off this is a good time to do some armchair gardening. Whether you browse through gardening books or magazines, or search the Internet for your reading material, without stirring from your armchair there’s plenty of opportunity now to be planning your planting and pruning for another year.

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Wintersweet’s blooming flowers are a treat for winter gardeners.

But not all plant life outdoors is dormant at this season. Though most parts of the country are chilly, and some are under a carpet of snow, those of you living in milder areas can enjoy the delicious fragrance of wintersweet. This is a wonderful winter-flowering deciduous shrub that should be a feature of every garden. It also grows successfully in a large pot or container. Wintersweet’s 2-cm-wide yellow flowers are highly fragrant and borne on bare branches — though if the autumn was mild, leaves will remain even when the first flowers begin to open.

Wintersweet belongs to the Calycanthaceae family and its botanical name, Chimonanthus preacox, derives from the Greek words cheimon (winter) and anthos (flower). However, both the vernacular English and Japanese names are interesting, too. The former is almost self-explanatory, as “wintersweet” refers to the sweet-smelling flowers borne during winter. In Japanese, however, it is known as robai, with ro (“wax”) alluding to the texture of the petals, and bai being the Chinese reading of the kanji for ume (“Japanese apricot”).

Wintersweet is a Chinese plant that was introduced to Japan from the Korean Peninsula during the reign of Emperor Gomizunoo (1611-29) in the early years of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Many plants were originally brought from China for medicinal purposes, and in the case of wintersweet, concoctions from its roots and stems were used to treat coughs and asthma.

Another popular cultivar is C. preacox var. grandiflorus, or To-robai. Here, To alludes to the Tang Dynasty in China, and is a frequently used prefix for Japanese names, indicating a Chinese origin, such as To-kaede (Acer buergerianum). To-robai flowers a little later than the normal wintersweet, and its blooms are also deeper yellow and larger, each being 2-3 cm across.

If you’re envisioning wintersweet blooms in your garden next year, do remember that one essential prerequisite is that it must be planted in a sunny position. Also, note that during summer this will be just another bush with green leaves, so it’s best planted at the back of a flowerbed, with perennials such as the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) in front.

Left unpruned, the plant will attain a height of 2 to 4 meters. Flowering stems are ideal for indoor decoration. In China, the flowers, like lavender, are used to keep linen smelling fresh.

My advice is to buy a small bush, say 1 meter high. Since wintersweet likes to grow in well-drained, humus-rich soil, before planting it be sure to incorporate plenty of leaf mold. This helps to conserve soil-moisture during summer. Established plants should be given an annual fertilizer dressing such as Magamp K, made by Hyponex Japan.

The Japan Times: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2002


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