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Brie's Plant Pick: Wintersweet

Brie Arthur
Brie Arthur is a Soil3 team member and author of "The Foodscape Revolution" and "Gardening With Grains." With a background in ornamental plant production, Brie is revolutionizing the backyard gardening movement by her work across the US and the globe promoting sustainability and community gardening in urban Foodscapes. Brie's website: https://www.briegrows.com/
December 21, 2021 3 minute read

'Tis the season to get outside and enjoy your landscape! December is a beautiful month for gardeners in the southeast. The cool weather has arrived, and we have tons of plants that begin to put on flowering displays!

As we end the year and begin anew, I will be featuring a “plant of the month” in each of my blogs in hopes of enticing you to grow a few new things. From trees and shrubs to herbaceous perennials, annuals, and edibles, I will be sharing insider tips on all my favorite varieties.

What is "Brie's Plant Pick" for December 2021? Chimonanthus praecox, also known as wintersweet, is a gloriously fragrant specimen that you often smell before you see. It is a plant I always have blooming on the winter solstice, which arrives on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. The blooms fill the air with a sweet scent that is irresistible. 

Brie Wintersweet flowers with blue sky

Wintersweet flowers add color and fragrance to the winter garden.

December Blooms

Chimonanthus praecox is a deciduous flowering shrub in the Calycanthaceae family. Hardy to zones 7-9, wintersweet is a must have shrub that can be tucked into the back corner of your landscape, meant to be enjoyed for a few weeks in early winter, while the branches are covered in blossoms.

Brie wintersweet with blue sky

This is a vigorous plant, reaching 12’ tall or higher with an open habit and is not meant to be pruned into a green meatball! Plant it where it can grow to its full size, so you can enjoy this as a maintenance free specimen. The blooming branches are perfect for cut arrangements to bring inside and enjoy, so plan to do any necessary pruning when the plant is in flower.

In late fall, the foliage turns a beautiful, butter yellow color before dropping to the ground. A few short weeks later, strongly scented, pendent flowers will appear on its bare stems. The blooms range in color from pale yellow to brilliant, dark gold with purple and red pigments. If you are particular about the flower color, buy it in bloom!

Brie wintersweet closeup of blooms crop

Propagation

This plant is notoriously difficult to propagate from cuttings. It seems like it should root but it doesn’t. Most nurseries grow this from seed, hence the flower color variability. Seed grown plants can take many years to flower, like over a decade.

If you come across a named cultivar, such as the gorgeous 'Grandiflorus' and 'Luteus' BUY THEM! They are probably grafted onto seedling rootstock to ensure you get the super showy blooms from the start.

Brie wintersweet Luteus yellow blooms2

Brie wintersweet Luteus yellow blooms closeup2

Chimonanthus praecox 'Luteus' has golden, yellow flowers which look amazing against bright blue skies on clear winter days.

Planting Tips

Choose a site with more sun than shade for best flowering, which generally means 6-8 hours of direct light. However, wintersweet can be grown along a woodland edge and will bloom even in low light.

As for soil prep, like most garden plants, this prefers moist, well-drained soil. What does that mean? ADD SOIL³! My recommendation always is to add Soil³ compost to the hole when planting any tree or shrub. This will provide the water and nutrient retention needed to get the plant established. 

Maintenance Tips

Wintersweet is a very low maintenance plant, once established, which means after 6-9 months in the ground you won’t need to water it, unless we are in a severe drought. And I already talked about pruning (see above).

Brie wintersweet cut blooms indoor display2-1

Wintersweet only needs light pruning if planted in the right spot. I prune mine in winter so I can bring the blooms inside to enjoy.

Chimonanthus praecox has low fertility needs. Each year I add 2-3” of Soil³ compost as a top dressing to ensure the roots are getting everything they need to thrive.  I find that my annual top dress is sufficient, however you can add a handful of an organic fertilizer if you desire. Remember more fertilizer will result in strong new growth. So if you don’t want to do any pruning, grow this on the lean side.

Definitely Not Edible!

Another common name for this shrub is Japanese Allspice. But it is important to note that Chimonanthus is NOT related to actual allspice, Pimenta dioica. DO NOT EAT THIS! The seeds contain a toxic alkaloid called calycanthine, found in several Calycanthus species.

The advantage of this is that animals, like deer, tend to stay away! I never say anything is 100% animal proof, but I have never heard of any gardeners complain of their wintersweet being eaten to the ground.

Botanical Details

Botanical Name: Chimonanthus praecox
Common Name: Wintersweet or Japanese Allspice
Family: Calycanthaceae
Hardiness: USDA Zones 7-9
Size: 20’ tall x 15’ wide
Location: Full sun to part shade
Soil: Moist and well-drained
Bloom Time: Winter
Foliage: Deciduous

Want More Winter Fragrance?

Wintersweet is one of my favorite cool season fragrances in the garden, but there are other options. Check out my list of selections for each season in: 20 Must-Have Trees & Shrubs for Fragrance.

I am wishing you all the best through the holidays and hope you will be inspired to try growing wintersweet in your garden. This low maintenance shrub is sure to delight you when the flowers begin to open, ushering in a new season. Looking forward to all that 2022 will offer: good health, great plants, and all the Soil³ you could ever need!

Brie

Soil3 blog Dec 2021 - Bries Plant Pick Wintersweet

 

Did this help you out? Have any questions for clarity? Leave a comment below!

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