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The scent of winter

The last remnants of snow that recently blanketed Bristol, and indeed most of the UK, have been washed away by what seems like relentless rain. In the Botanic Garden, the staff and volunteers are seeking shelter in the potting shed and glasshouses, turning to indoor work during this inclement weather. Yet, despite grey skies and soggy soil, the Garden still has some delights to offer the senses.

Prunus mume in bloom at the Botanic Garden
Just outside the welcome lodge at the Botanic Garden, there is a delightful fragrance emanating from the Chinese plum, which is also known as the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume). This is an incredibly important plant in China and Japan and the delicate pink flowers feature prominently in much of the art from these cultures. Beneath the Chinese plum, Helleborus is in bloom – purple, pinks and whites – offering a beautiful winter display of colour.

Andy, a botanical horticulturist at the Garden, has taken time out of his busy schedule to show me around the rain. As we enter through the main gate, all the borders are looking incredibly tidy. Now that the last leaves have fallen, the volunteer and staff gardeners have taken the time to sweep and rake up the remains of autumn.

Snow drops have finally made their appearance.
Andy takes me past the pond to an area at the back of the garden where the gently sloping grass bank is scattered with spring bulbs that have broken through. Andy explains plans to make a bee hotel. There is already a good stack of wood and bamboo started, which will be added to over the next while to provide habitat for solitary bees. There are also plans to use some planks to create a city skyline sculpture that is also fully functioning bee habitat – a ‘Bee-tropolis’ if you will. Good gardeners always treat their pollinators well!

Winter sweet (Chimonanthus) looking a little soggy.
We stop at the winter sweet (Chimonanthus) and have a smell of the small white flowers that are growing along the bare branches. Andy tells me that most of the winter flowering plants are incredibly fragrant in order to attract the few pollinators that are out and about at this time of year. Unlike the sweet smelling Chinese plum, the winter sweet has a more nutty or spicy scent, which makes me wonder what sort of pollinator it’s trying to attract. Generally speaking, flowers with a spicy or fruity smell tend to attract beetles, while sweet smelling flowers attract bees and flies.

The winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) is in full flower. The flowers are...subtle. In fact, Andy needs to point one out to me. It has a strong citrus smell that is really lovely.
Winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) 
has a lovely citrus fragrance.

Without a doubt, however, the amazing winter display is the evergreen Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. It is in full bloom and is incredibly fragrant. This species grows wild in the Himalayas and belongs to a group known as the paper Daphnes as the bark was once used to make paper and rope.

Beyond the Daphne, in the corner, there are a number of very large wheelbarrows filled with branches and cuttings that are evidence of how much cutting back and clearing has been done in the garden recently. There is also a pile of branches and a bush, which are all victims of the recent snowfall.

Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'
offers an incredible winter display.
“Winter is a time for keeping our fingers crossed,” says Andy, “hoping that everything makes it through and that all the winter protection we did helps.”

As we cruise by the compost heap, I can’t help but think of the rotting robot parts.

Beyond the compost and the vegetable patch, there are piles of Hazel branches. The gardeners have been collecting these in preparation for the new growing season. They are used as pea sticks to support herbaceous plants. It’s one of many winter tasks in the garden.  

Andy explains that winter is when much of the landscaping and development is done in the garden. However, right now with such sodden conditions, it simply can’t be done. But, in the meantime, there’s lots that can be done indoors. Let’s hope the winter pollinators have more luck with their outdoor tasks!


  1. Watch for insects. Keep in mind that many insects are beneficial, but if they are causing damage to the fruit or plant, a control measure needs to be taken.


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