Back in December I was absolutely convinced that my wintersweet (Chimonanthus), a shrub renowned for both its headily-scented winter flowers, and taking its own sweet time to getting around to flowering, was finally about to do the business this year. I tweeted: “After a careful search and google I can confirm there seems to be tiny flower buds on my Chimonanthus! YESSSSS!” Every few days I checked the wintersweet on the way to the compost heap, and every time the tiny, scaly buds looked exactly the same. Meanwhile my wintersweet’s neighbour, a winter honeysuckle of exactly the same age, was sprinkled with flowers like icing sugar on a victoria sponge. Hoping against hope, I looked again this morning, and there’s the first sign of leaf growth, but no flowers on the wretched Chimonanthus. Those flower buds? Just plain old leaf buds after all.
If I feel irritated by a plant, I often turn to Christopher Lloyd for advice: he wrote a weekly column for the Guardian 17 years, but died two years before I started working as gardening editor there, so I never got the chance to experience his formidable personality – but I have a feeling I would have adored him.
He does not disappoint on wintersweet. Opening his book The Well-Tempered Garden, I chuckle at his description of wintersweet as “a shrub of sordid appearance in its summer dress”. I read on. “I’ve known impatient gardeners [that’s me! that’s me! I think, cringing] to throw out their winter sweet after five or six years of waiting in vain for flowers. I admit to experiencing a certain relish as I point out that, had they waited one more year, they would probably have been rewarded with blossoms both then and increasingly every year thereafter. Seven years is the average waiting period….”
I do a mental calculation: my son, now nearly five, was a baby when the wintersweet first went into the ground: we’d just finished building work and the plant budget was tiny: hence, so were the plants I could afford. I knew the little twig of wintersweet wouldn’t flower immediately, but I’d overoptimistically banked on blooms after a couple of years. Now I realise I have maybe two years to wait, maybe longer. I’m chastened.
In the meantime I shall fall back on my winter honeysuckle for winter scent, I think. I turn back a page to see what Christo has to say on this plant: “Coarse habit and boring appearance”.
Jane Perrone is a journalist and a blogger at Horticultural