Monday, January 18, 2010

Fragrant Sarcococca

It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

Sarcococca…well now that’s a mouthful isn’t it? However, the fragrance that is filling the garden right now from this shrub’s blooms is definitely a nose-full!

The common names that I’ve seen for this plant here in the western USA are ‘vanilla bush’ and ‘sweet box’. The botanical name is Sarcococca confusa. Be sure to take the botanical name to the nursery to ensure finding the shrub described in this post, as there are other varieties with different habits and characteristics.

Sarcococca confusa is hardy to USDA zones 4-9 and grows to about a 4 foot by 4 foot sized shrub, with evergreen, waxy, dark green, pointy leaves that have a graceful waviness to them too. Its flowers produce black berries, the likes of which I’ve never witnessed any wildlife devouring. But they are pretty, interesting and hang on for a long time (the photo shows last years berries with current flowers). Its flowers are small, white, spidery looking blossoms that fill the surrounding air with a sweet (to my nose) lingering aroma. Mine is in the side yard, but when I’m in the back yard I’ll catch a whiff as the air currents circle around. Deep breath…ahh, heavenly. I just love fragrance in the garden. Bringing more than one stem into the house for a vase is really overpowering! My neighbor never fails to comment on the lovely aroma every January as she steps out her front door, which is at least 15 feet from the shrub.

**Alert!** My plant was mislabeled by the grower as sarcococca ruscifolia. Apparently confusa is often sold as ruscifolia, and yes, you too can be a victim of sloppy labeling. Luckily for me I got confusa which grows to 4 feet which was my priority. Ruscifolia is a larger variety, reportedly growing 6-7 feet tall and wide, sporting red berries with the same flowers and fragrance.

Sarcococca reportedly comes to us from China. It thrives in dry shade once established, often the most difficult garden spot to fill. Western Garden Book says “they maintain slow, orderly growth and polished appearance in deepest shade, will take sun in cool summer areas”, maybe Canada or Alaska and northern Europe? But for the rest of us (in USDA zones 7-9), if you have a spot that is on the shaded side of the house, too far from the sprinkler system or hose for convenient watering, then this is the plant for you.

The term ‘once established’ means that for the first year or two (depending on the plant species) a newly planted shrub or perennial will need watering till it’s roots have ventured out into the native soil, even plants that like it dry. This is very important; it can be the difference between plant survival and failure. For the first year only, I watered this plant once a week for the first month, then once a month till the cooler fall weather returned. Now that it’s been in the ground for several years and is full size I rarely water it at all…maybe only during an excessively dry, hot summer period. Most garden experts would probably say even that is not necessary after the first year.

Just the other day it was warm enough for my bees to fly.  They definitely discovered its pollen and nectar, as did the hummingbirds!

If natural fragrance in your garden is something you’d like to increase, this is definitely a plant for you to consider.

In bloom in my garden today: Sarcococca confusa, hellebore, Daphne caucasica ‘Summer Ice’

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus

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Shari B. said...

Hi Joan! Sorry I'm a few days late reading this post!

I bet it's just like paradise wandering around in your garden, smelling fragrant things like 'vanilla bush'. I LOVE fragrant plants. The previous owners of this house planted lilac bushes (I think that's what they are anyway) and when they bloom I could just sit by them all day and take in the wonderful smell!

Shari B. said...

Oh and I forgot to say LOVE the new theme - feels like spring! :)

Joan said...

Aren't lilacs wonderful! I just love bringing a boquet into the house. Such a soft fragrance. I have 3 of them now, just adding 2 more a few years back.

Sarcococca is hardy to zone 4 USDA. If you fall into that catagory, just one of these bushes could give you sweet fragrance before the lilacs, extending your pleasure. Though you'd just be smelling these as you dash in and out of the house since it's cold when they bloom. Maybe you could plant one near a door, but it truly doesn't have to be too near. And keep in mind how the breeze travels around your house. I smell mine in the back yard, but it's planted in the side yard. Yesterday I was standing right next to it talking to a neighbor and couldn't smell it, but it was strong in the back yard as the breezes carried the fragrance around.

Peggy said...

Where can I purchase a Sarcocca Confusa in the USA?
Is there a catalog that has it?
Best-Peggy Baker

Joan said...

Hi Peggy and welcome!
You should be able to find it at your local nurseries, if you are in a USDA zone 4 or higher location. I'd call around first. You'll get a better plant from a nursery, even if you have to have them mail it. I'm sure catalogs have it, I'd just google it, but you'll get a smaller plant and pay for shipping. Are you near nurseries?
They should start carrying it as soon as it blooms in your area. For example if you're still under snow it may be a month or more, but here in the Pacific Northwest it has finished blooming but nurseries keep it stocked for a while longer or till they sell out.