Friday, February 02, 2007

The Scent of Spring: Sweet Box

I’ve been looking forward to reviving my Blog and musing about what I would feature as the first flower of spring. I always think of Snowdrops as the flower of Candlemas (Feb 2) but I have not yet seen one this year. The plant which has been bringing me the most joy is the lovely sweet box, also known as Sarcococca hookerana, var. humilis, and sometimes as Sarcococca humilis.

This is the plant that always bring me my first whiff of spring. It happened again this year, as it does every year. I’m walking along and suddenly I'm stopped in my tracks by an incredible fragrance, but I can't find the source.

This happened for several days in a row last week, every time I went out the front door of my workplace, Richard HugoHouse, in Seattle. Finally the third time, I stopped and searched for the source of the scent. Even though I knew about sweet box, I didn’t spot it at first. It’s so unassuming. Just a low-lying shrub with glossy green oval leaves, slightly curled around the edges. The flowers are small and white and grow on the undersides of the stems, as if they were hiding. But the scene is divine, both piercing and elusive.

This link has a great picture of it and a good description of how it grows:

But as usual my favorite gardener Paghat has the best pictures of both Sarcococca humilis, which she says is also called Christmas box and Himalayan box., and a taller version, Sarcococca ruscifolia:

In fact, looking at her pictures, I suspect the plant at work is S. ruscifolia and not humils. She’s also the only person who provided a translation of the genus name: from Sarco (fruit) and Cocca (berry). It does have lovely berries in the fall which turn red, then shiny dark black.

Most writers describe the scent as vanilla. My boss thought it smelled like lavender. I think it’s closer to jasmine. Intense and sweet. It’s more interesting when you drift through it unexpectedly than if you pick a sprig and sniff it. There’s some kind of important lesson for life there.

As recommended by all the gardening sites I visited, the sweet box outside my work is planted near the entrance, against a wall which shelters it from the southern winds and the southern sun. It's also underneath a larger tree which provides shade.

Apparently sarcococca only grows in Zones 6 through 8, so I’m lucky. I can never remember what Zone I live in but apparently I live in the right Zone. It seems like the perfect flower to announce spring, a small, unassuming plant that hints at the pleasures to come.

The wonderful photograph of sweet box above comes from this web site
which also features photographs of many other early flowering plants. As far as I can tell (my German is not good), these photographs are of plants blooming in March in a botanical garden in Braunschweig.

May you enjoy the first fragrance of spring where you live.

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