Subtly Scented Sarcococca

Sarcococca confusa growing at the base of a pendulous birch, Betula pendula
Sarcococca confusa growing at the base of a pendulous birch, Betula pendula

We learnt to recognise the signs, visitors stopped, looked around, walkedback, looked again, and then saw someone obviously gardening and out comes the question – ‘where is that lovely scent coming from’?

This winter, especially on calm days, and after planting probably hundreds of plants over the years, the scent has gently wafted around as people pass, and what pray is the cause? An overlooked humble shrub, with small white flowers, usually half hidden in the shade of other shrubs.

Sarcococca, often called Christmas Box or Sweet Box, is indeed in the box family, Buxaceae, but it is very different. Not shrubby, it forms dense low mounds of always green stems and leaves. New shoots arise from the ground each year, and the ‘bush’ slowly gets wider, and maybe a little taller. Happier in partial, even deep shade, it suffers in bright sun, with the leaves becoming yellowish. Tolerant of dry conditions, it grows well even under birch, though struggles to do well. Given good conditions, shade, moisture, and a good mulch occasionally, it will always be green and verdant. We never seem to do anything to it! No dead shoots to remove, no pruning back, mulching maybe, but not often, no watering, literally no effort!

Sarcococca seedlings under the parent plant
Seedlings of Sarcococca confusa under the parent plant

There are several species commonly found. S. confusa – well named as no one is quite sure where in west China it probably came from – is one of the commonest. The oldest single clump we have, planted about 50 years ago, is now about 1.6ms tall, and 2ms across. It self seeds regularly if there is bare ground next to it – birds may take some of the fleshy black berries, but enough are left.

Sarcococca humilis
Sarcococca humilis

A dwarfer one is S. humilis, which is not my favourite as it is too dwarf, only getting to about half a metre high. Only after a few years does it seem to start doing well, spreading slowly by restrained suckers, moving a mere 25cms or so at most.

Sarcococca humilis  (2)
Sarcococca humilis

Very similar to S. confusa is S. ruscifolia, though once you get used to them it is obvious the leaves are more pointed, though the giveaway at the right time of year is that the berries are red. Possibly a more open form of growth too, though that depends on where it is growing.

Sarcococca ruscifolius
Sarcococca ruscifolia
Sarcococca ruscifolia
Sarcococca ruscifolia

S. hookeriana is also about a metre high, has narrower leaves, reddish coloured stems in some cvs, and a more adventurous suckering habit, spreading maybe 250mm per year when happy and established.

Sarcococca hookeriana - new plants from cuttings. Note the new growth from the base.
Sarcococca hookeriana – new plants from cuttings. Note the new growth from the base.

S. orientalis is a more recent introduction, and not so easy to find, from Roy Lancasters travels in China, with a bigger more noticeable flower, and an equally delightful scent. The anthers are a good dark red on emergence, giving a reddish tint to the flowers, while the leaves are narrower than the commoner species.

Sarcococca orientalis
Sarcococca orientalis

Text and photographs from Stephen Butler(who gardens at Dublin Zoo)

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3 thoughts on “Subtly Scented Sarcococca

  1. I live in the west of Ireland can you tell me where I may buy the Sarcococca humilis for my garden project please , love the blog here very informative and lovely photos. Kind regards Kathy.


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