There’s no escaping it, January is hardly fun packed. After the jollity and cosy indulgences of December, it hits us full on with its chill, dark days and its unreasonable demands to live life more mindfully, more healthily, less lazily. But it’s a brand new year, and – believe it or not – the days are gradually lengthening, and plants are slowly coming to life.
On New Year’s Eve, I bought a container of white hyacinths, just coming into bud, at my local garden centre. Despite my best intentions, I rarely remember to force my own hyacinth bulbs (you need to do this in September for New Year flowers), so a quick fix was needed. Now that the Christmas tree has been packed away and the sparkly lights taken down, the house seems so sparse. But these hyacinths are the perfect antidote. Each flower spike is crammed joyfully with pure-white bells, 20 or 30 of them to each stem. That so-not-January shot of unapologetic abundance, combined with their incredibly heady lemony scent, is giving me the boost I need to face the month with enthusiasm and vigour.
There’s a more low-key performance turning up in the garden, too. Each morning I take a slow walk around, eyes focused at ground level. There are snowdrop buds filling out on glaucous stems, the vivid green shoots of bluebells spiking out from the earth, fat camellia buds and the first daffodils powering their way resolutely into the light. If you’ve forgotten to plant snowdrops, it’s not too late as Ashridge supplies them ‘in the green’ (the best way to plant them, actually – they’ll be much more successful than snowdrop bulbs planted in autumn).
At eye level there’s life to be found, too. Perhaps my favourite sight in January is my winter honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’). It’s an unassuming shrub for most of the year. Some might even call it a tad messy. Its branches shoot out any way they fancy, with no elegance or thought for aesthetics. But no matter: in summer there’s plenty of other plants to admire and it blends into the background. In mid-winter, however, it puffs softly into life, its creamy-white flowers popping out all over the pale brown stems, the delicate yellow anthers packed with pollen. The bees love it, of course, and the shrub hums with them from December to March. It’s a brilliant plant for hungry winter pollinators. And the fresh, citrussy perfume will stop you in your tracks. Apparently another of its common names is ‘sweet breath of spring’. Don't you just love honeysuckle?
I have a keen eye trained on my sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) at the moment, too. It’s planted in a big pot in the shadiest part of the garden, where it does really well. I can see it from the dining table, and right now the little white buds are fattening up nicely along its arching evergreen stems.
Other shrubs that are good for winter scent are daphnes and viburnums – compact evergreen Viburnum Eve Price has big clusters of white flowers that open from rose-pink buds from December to April. There are a few flowers of mine right now, with plenty of promise for more to come. Their perfume is intense. Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is fabulous in January, too. It flowers on bare buff stems, the flowers tight little pompoms of carmine pink. I once planted one for a client against a pale blue-grey wall – the perfect foil for those strong structural stems and pretty candy blooms.
Then there are the witch hazels, with their spidery curls of yellow, burnt orange and gold flowers and strong medicinal scent. There’s something intriguing about them. I have a pale yellow one, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’, which I love, but it’s struggling to make itself seen at the moment, behind a large white hydrangea. It’s doing well, though, and I’m hoping it will soon grow taller than the hydrangea and shine a little more. I can’t prune the hydrangea back until March, so let’s hope it gets growing.
There are climbers, too, that bring a little scent to the winter garden. Some of the best are clematis (they say there’s one in flower every month of the year). January’s star clematis has to be Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’. I love its unassuming white flowers speckled with dusky pink. The scent is delicately citrussy, and the leaves are pretty, too: evergreen yet delicate and fern-like.
After the extravagance of Christmas, I think January should be less about sacrifice and more about taking pleasure in the small things. Scent and the stirrings of new life in the garden are among the best of these.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer