Fall Fragrance in a Sweet Box

sweet box (Sarcococca) photo by Michael Pettinger

sweet box (Sarcococca) photo by Michael Pettinger

By mid-November in the Valley, most flowering, fruiting and fragrance-giving plants have taken their final bows until the curtain goes up on another spring. Yet for a few select garden ornamentals, the show has only just begun.
Take sweet box, for example, a late fall and early winter bloomer. It is a relative of the familiar Japanese boxwood used in low hedges. Sweet box, by contrast, is a slow-growing ground cover or specimen shrub. It has a powerful, long-distance honey fragrance whose source is shrouded in mystery. Its leaves are deep green, glossy, grow densely and hang elegantly on the stem. Only after pulling back the sweet box foliage are tiny white flowers, which are incredibly prolific perfume producers, revealed. Sweet box, which originates in China, spreads by underground runners.
Two species of sweet box or Sarcococca (SAR-koh-koh-kuh) are most commonly seen. Sarcococca humilis is a ground cover and Sarcococca ruscifolia is a 6-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide shrub that can easily be trained up against a wall or trellis. All sweet boxes should be grown in the shade.
Incidentally, that funny-sounding name “Sarcococca” comes from Greek words for flesh (sarkos) and berry (kokkos), in reference to the plant’s pulpy, fleshy fruits.
Camellia sasanqua is not ballyhooed half as much as its cousin, Camellia japonica. Camellia japonica has large, roselike flowers that bloom in late winter, while Camellia sasanqua has flowers with prominent gold stamens that open in fall and early winter. Camellia sasanqua, however, is far less susceptible to the bud and petal blights that regularly visit Camellia japonica, causing flower buds to drop before they open and quickly browning flower petals that do open. Camellia sasanqua blooms for several months, starting now, in white, red and every shade of pink.
The famous Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) has a peak bloom period just about this time of year. Its furry violet petals and fragrant foliage make it a must for the fall garden. No plant gives more beauty for less attention on the gardener’s part than Mexican sage. After its flowers fade, just cut it back to a height of 12 to 18 inches and wait for it to bloom again.
Other sages blooming now include Saliva chiapensis, a low mounding shrub with magenta pink blooms, and Salvia discolor, whose pale green calyces enclose navy blue flower petals.
The Australian fuchsias (Correa species) are worthy of a vaunted place in the fall and winter garden with their heavy display of bell-shaped blooms. The most well-known varieties have cream colored flowers, but types that bloom in pink, red and orange are also available. Correas demand fast-draining soil but require little fertilization or summer water.
The cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) really lights up in the fall. Its mass of cylindrical orange flowers with yellow tips glow brightly under autumn’s darkening skies. Cigar plant does well in full or partial sun, needing supplemental irrigation in hotter exposures.
Red cestrum (Cestrum elegans) is a plant from tropical Mexico with wine-red flowers that can bloom at almost any time but are especially noticeable under gray November skies. Red cestrum inflorescences, each of which consists of more than 20 upward facing tubes, explode on shoot terminals like a Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza.
If you are searching for a fall-blooming tree, you might overlook the familiar but always delightful lemon bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus). Its scarlet red blooms – actually hundreds of male flower parts known as stamens – appear reliably each spring and fall. The bottlebrush is quite drought tolerant but reacts adversely to highly alkaline soil, developing chlorotic leaves under such conditions.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Start a mango tree indoors. Let it grow by a bright window during fall and winter and, when the weather warms again, transplant it outside. To begin, cut up a mango fruit to reveal a husk-covered seed inside. Let the seed dry out overnight. The next day, carefully slit the husk and pry it apart with a dull knife. Remove the seed and put it in a bag filled with moist sphagnum moss. This is not peat moss, but a coarse green material, also used in hanging wire baskets, that is available in most nurseries. Within two to three weeks, the seed should germinate, at which point it can be transferred to a container with fast-draining topsoil and allowed to grow indoors for the next three or four months before being given a permanent home in the garden.

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