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Plant Profiles: Chimonanthus praecox

Chimonanthus praecox
Chimonanthus praecox

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Why does man fuss knee socks


Multistemmed deciduous shrub, fountainlike to leggy; 10 to 15 feet

Full sun to morning shade, ordinary soil, decent drainage

Bad pruning makes it ugly; take out old canes after flowering

Not for the small garden but delightful by path, porch, or corner; protect in single-digit weather

Deciduous shrub

I was walking down a barren street in suburban Maryland one day when a sweet smell hit me right between the eyes. I stopped short and started sniffing -- a trick I learned from my beagle, Della -- but found nothing of consequence nearby. I looked up into the trees for a flowering vine, looked under shrubs for a handful of bulbs, and searched the block for a feminine form. Thinking it was heartbreak playing tricks on me, I sniffed my scarf for traces of a bygone guy.

Finally, I found the source, and boy was it ugly (would that he had been, too). "It" was a miserably pruned mass of ragged, leafless branches that could have been quince or forsythia, except that it was way too soon for either of those shrubs to be in bloom. Its thimble-sized flowers, inconspicuously huddled along the branches, were a pale yellow with an inner purple stain.

With precious little else going on in the landscape, the sensual impact of this plant was all-consuming. It was as if I'd walked into a commercial for one of those floral emission devices that turn a bathroom into a meadow or a deer-infested forest glade. The day seemed to virtually brighten up around me; the scent put a skip in my step. Kissed by the sweet breath of spring, the beagle and I danced all the way home.

At least that's how I remember it.

Such is the power of Chimonanthus praecox, known familiarly as wintersweet. It ranks right up there with lilacs and magnolias for superb flower fragrance, along with the similarly uncelebrated winter honeysuckle, Lonicera standishii. Its scent is neither cloying nor overpowering, but lemonlike and spicy; a branch or two does wonders in a living room vase.

The blossoms of the unimproved species are waxy and translucent and, as I've said, not very showy, but two selections, 'Luteus" (possibly the same as 'Concolor') and 'Grandiflorus', have dramatically deeper yellow blooms. However, I'm not quite convinced the selections are worth the extra cost, since the point is the plant's fragrance, which, unfortunately, is pretty much the sum of its charms.

After leafing out in spring, C. praecox turns back into a pumpkin, with coarse almond-shaped leaves on an upright, leggy, twelve- to fifteen-foot mound that adds bulk but little else to the landscape. It's by no means an eyesore; it simply becomes irrelevant, which is not necessarily bad (think lilac). Underplant it with spring bulbs, drape it in summer-blooming vines, mix it with autumn-lit shrubs, and you'll forget it's even there.

Until one dreary winter day when both you and the landscape are feeling a bit bereft, and a ray of sun ignites a winter-sweet blossom. Suddenly, the air is redolent of romance and possibility, despite the fact that you can't remember what she looked like or have all but forgotten his name.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.