Sarcococca – a glorious winter perfume
We grow sarcococca in our gardens for its glorious perfume in the middle of winter, when we’re in most need of a little lift for our spirits. But what if, whilst we enjoy the fragrance, we take a closer look? Perhaps we can find the source of the wonderful scent and discover a fascinating plant.
Sarcococca – what a name!
What an extraordinary name – so many c’s and where does the double one go? Maybe the derivation will help – the name comes from the Greek sarkos, which means flesh, and kokkos, a berry, referring to the fleshy fruits. It is in the family Buxaceae and is sometimes referred to as sweet box or Christmas box.
The genus Sarcococca contains about 14 species of evergreen shrubs found in moist, shady places in forests and thickets from China to the Himalayas and SE Asia. There seem to be three species, S. confusa, S. hookeriana, and S. ruscifolia, together with their varieties or cultivars that are the most popular and easily available. They vary in the size and shape of the leaves, the type of root system, rhizomatous or fibrous, the number of styles in the female flowers, and colour in the flowers.
Let’s take a close look at the tiny flowers
Because sarcococca is usually grown for its fragrance, whenever I have seen one, or more correctly, smelled one, I have just breathed in the gorgeous scent and never looked closely at the flowers. I was, therefore, in for a surprise.
(I will describe the flowers in this image, of Sarcococca confusa. Other species will only vary in colour of bracts and tepals, and anthers, and number of styles. The presence of bracts and tepals is somewhat confused, so I have tried to use the latest research I can find as a source of information. You can find a link below.)
All sarcococca plants are monoecious, with unisexual flowers in small, axillary clusters or racemes. Usually, several male flowers are present in the upper part of the inflorescences and fewer female flowers at the base.
The male flowers have four stamens, about 10mm long, emerging from a group of four tepals, behind which are a number of bracts. The stamens have almost basifixed anthers, which open by longitudinal slits. In Sarcococca confusa the filaments are white and anthers, cream.
The female flowers are much smaller at just 2mm wide, and, in S.confusa, can have either two or three styles, behind which are the tepals and a number of bracts. Other species have a similar arrangement but have flowers with either two or three styles, a useful feature for species identification.
The female flowers mature before the males. Once the styles have emerged completely they bend backwards to present the stigma, which extends along almost the entire length of the style.
The filaments in the male flowers elongate and begin to produce a strong sweet smell for some time before anther dehiscence, which starts about three to four weeks after the beginning of the female phase. Male flowering time lasts about two to three weeks.
If the female flowers are fertilized they develop into red, purple or black berries, more accurately called drupes, which retain the tepals and bracts, and the remnants of the styles. These fruits can persist into the following winter, so they are still there when the plant blooms again. Each drupe contains one to three seeds.
Some of the species, varieties and cultivars that we can grow
Sarcococca confusa is very well-known and the most often grown species. It is a dense, spreading shrub with a fibrous root system and glossy, elliptical, dark green leaves with wavy edges, to about 60mm long and 20mm wide. The male flowers have pale stamens; the female ones have either two or three styles and once fertilized develop into shining black berries, many of which remain until the new flowers appear the following winter.
Some growers report that their plants produce a great many seedlings. It has a strong perfume easily detectable from some considerable distance. Heights quoted for this plant vary from 75cm to 3m plus! I have not seen it above about waist height but it might depend on growing conditions. It was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by Ernest Wilson but its origin is uncertain, probably China. It received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
Sarcococca ruscifolia was introduced by Ernest Wilson in 1901 but is rare in cultivation. Sarcococca ruscifolia var. chinensis is more common and is a small, slow-growing evergreen shrub with a fibrous root system, glossy, narrowly-ovate leaves, and small, fragrant, creamy-white flowers. Although similar in general appearance to S. confusa, the female flowers have three styles, which produce dark red berries. Once again estimates of height vary widely, ranging from 50cm to 1.5m.
Sarcococca ruscifolia var. chinensis ‘Dragon Gate’ is from one of Roy Lancaster’s collections in the mountains in Yunnan, China. It has narrowly elliptic dark green leaves and highly fragrant small cream flowers. The lower females bear dark red fruit in late winter. It received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012. Dan Pearson has one by his gate to welcome visitors and says that he likes this fine-leaved form of S. ruscifolia for its delicacy and grace, lighter than its parent and therefore good for a small space.
Sarcococca hookeriana is, it would seem, rare but the form widely grown in gardens is Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna, introduced in 1908 from western China by Ernest Wilson. The stamens in the male flowers have white filaments and cream anthers, and the female flowers have just two styles, hence the name digyna, from the Greek di, two, and gyne, woman.
The most noticeable characteristic of this species is the pink colouration, which comes from the purple-flushed young stems and leaf petioles, and the pink-tinted tepals and bracts behind the flowers. The fruits are spherical black berries. This variety has slender, tapered leaves and an upright habit.
It is rhizomatous and slowly increases into thickets, a feature put to good use at Anglesey Abbey, where it has been allowed to spread under pollarded willows in the Winter Garden. Again opinions vary as to its height, ranging from 1m to 2m.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ has young shoots flushed dark purple-pink. It received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. hookeriana ‘Ghorepani’
I first saw, and smelled, this lovely plant in The Winter Garden at the Sir Harold Hillier Garden in Hampshire last February. You can join me in a visual tour of the garden here.
According to the Sarcococca National Collection holder, it was named after the village in Nepal where it was discovered by plantsman Christopher Grey-Wilson in 2000. It will grow to about 1m in height and needs a well-drained soil in shade. It has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf (about 60cm), clump-forming shrub, spreading by suckers. It has erect shoots with glossy, oblong dark green leaves. The flowers are white, tinged pink; the male ones have pink anthers and the female have two styles and are followed by black berries. It was introduced from western China in 1907 by Ernest Wilson.
Exciting new hybrids
Hybridizers are busy trying to develop new, and they hope better, plants to tempt us to buy. ‘Winter Gem’ was the first to appear but I have seen two new ones from Canada. They seem to be small and compact to appeal to those with small gardens, and have brighter colours and, best of all, stronger perfume. Only time will tell if they are better than those we have already.
Sarcococca hookeriana Winter Gem = ‘Pmoore03’ is a new hybrid bred by Peter Moore from a cross between S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ and S. hookeriana var. humilis. It is an upright, dense shrub, to around 70cm high, with glossy, dark-green leaves and highly-scented white flowers, opening from red buds. The male flowers have red anthers and the female flowers are followed by spherical berries that ripen from red to black.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis Fragrant Valley = ‘Sarsid1’ and Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis Fragrant Mountain= ‘Sarsid2’ have been introduced by a nursery in Canada. It looks as though they might have wider leaves, some colour in the inflorescence, and very compact habit, 45cm high and less than 1m wide.
Now, where should we plant them?
If we already have, or manage to find, any of these very desirable plants, where should we place them in the garden? Well, just about anywhere it would seem. They appear to be extremely amenable to a variety of difficult situations.
The Hillier Manual says that they succeed in any fertile soil, being especially happy in chalk soils. Graham Stuart Thomas writes that they thrive in any well-drained soil, limy – even chalky – or acid, preferably in shade or part shade, and even in dry, rooty places. He adds that they will “fit in almost anywhere, meekly doing their little bit.” He also advises planting in groups beneath large shrubs and trees – “for they delight in shade and shelter.” The RHS Encyclopedia advises a moderately fertile, humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil in deep or partial shade and that they can be grown as ground cover in a woodland garden or as a low, informal hedge. It adds that they are tolerant of atmospheric pollution, dry shade and neglect.
What about the glorious perfume?
They are grown for the beautiful scent so that must be taken into account as well when deciding where to plant them.
In a piece entitled ‘Scents where you sit’ Christopher Lloyd writes, “All the species of Sarcococca waft a delicious smell but flower in January and February so it’ll be a question of sniffing as you walk past them than of sitting near them.”
Margery Fish says to plant under the north wall of a courtyard where their perfume can be noticed and enjoyed.
In her Woodland Garden, Beth Chatto explains that you might walk past some small, insignificant shrubs without noticing them but then, some yards away downwind, you detect a curiously sweet scent, half spice, half almond, perhaps. When you turn to find where the perfume comes from you see the low, box-like shrubs, Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna and S. confusa, one either side of the entrance.
Dan Pearson likes to ‘winkle’ them into shady places and under the skirts of deciduous trees and shrubs. They are in their element in these conditions not only for their shiny foliage but for their delicious perfume.
I have also seen it mentioned that they can be grown in pots so this might be a way to have them exactly where you want them in the winter and moved into a cool shady place in the summer.
Now I know so much more about these quite lowly shrubs I am going to make sure I continue to take a closer look and appreciate everything they have to offer.
Find some useful information
Find out more about Peter Moore and Sarcococca hookeriana Winter Gem here.
Development of Inflorescences and Flowers in Buxaceae and the Problem of Perianth Interpretation. Here.
Many books have been written about the exciting world of plant hunting but I have found this one to be particularly good. The Plant Hunters – Two hundred years of adventure and discovery around the world. by Toby Musgrave, Chris Gardener, and Will Musgrave.
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