The sweet scent of sarcococca confusa gives it the common name ‘sweet box’, also known as the Christmas box. It blooms in the late winter or early spring. The botanical name sarcococca is derived from two Greek words; sarcos, which means fleshy, and coccus, meaning fruit. And this plant does carry fleshy, berry-like fruits.

Family: The sweet box is aptly named for its sweetly scented flowers and its relationship to the common box, which is widely grown in gardens for low-growing hedges. But the genus of common box has been damaged by box blight disease, which causes patchy growth and weak growth.

Common box is related to sarcococca, both being members of the buxaceae. Both kinds are evergreen with small leaves, although those of the common box are relatively small.

Garden use

Winter flowering plants are noted for scent – many of those that flower in the cooler months produce fragrance to attract early flying pollinators, such as bumblebees, the first queens of which merge from their winter quarters to certify nest sites. The effort of searching is fuelled by nectar from sarcococca and other winter-flowering plants, such as witch hazel.

The flowers are just stamens, no petals at all, and are hard to see unless they are well furnished with flowers, and you look at the twig undersides. So if you notice a sweet scent while visiting a garden, have a look for the sweet box, or other winter scent-maker.

The petal-less flowers are well equipped with other flower parts and they effectively form small, berry-like fruits, which are either red or black. While more species sport black berries, it would seem that there are some kinds in the trade that carry red berries, although they are likely to be incorrectly named.

Sweet box is a notably useful shrub for scent, but it has other valuable attributes too. It is evergreen and makes a bushy shrub of about 60cm to about two metres. The smallest species is sarcococca humilis, forming a small shrub to about 60cm tall and one metre across. Sarcococca hookeriana was named in honour of plant-hunter JD Hooker and all species are native to China.

Sarcococca confusa was considered confusing as to its origin initially as it resembles butcher’s broom, or ruscus; the species sarcococca ruscifolia has red berries. Some species, and individual plants, carry flowers that are tinged with purple or green, but are mostly white when fully open.

Growing sweet box

Sweet box is a durable, tough little plant. It can withstand low light levels when shaded by trees and shrubs. If it is exposed to bright sunshine, it can cause the leaves to become tired and yellowish, but if the soil is relatively moist, this plant will grow even in relatively bright sunshine.

Winter greenery

Sarcococca is often seen growing in commercial landscaping where it is much valued as a shade-tolerant plant. But it is useful in gardens, providing winter greenery and that lovely scent. The berries, being black, mostly, are somewhat hidden along the underside of the branches and do not offer much by way of decoration.

The most commonly available kind is called ’Purple Stem’ which carries masses of fragrant flowers along the purple-tinted twigs. The flowers themselves are also tinged with purple.

Although sarcococca has been suggested as a possible hedging replacement for common box, it tends to have a suckering habit that would make it unsuitable. It likes to grow in moist acidic or neutral soil.

Butterfly magnet

Butterfly Bush

Butterfly bush makes a large shrub of three metres and more. This can get too large and unruly, smothering other plants with its vigour. While it can be grown in the format of a small tree in a small garden, this does not always suit because most of the flowers will be carried high up on the plant where they can only be seen from a distance.

Another approach to managing butterfly bush, or buddleja, is to cut back hard to about 50cm. New growth will appear in early summer and will flower late in the season. It is known as butterfly bush because it is much visited by butterflies of many kinds when it is in flower, an excellent source of nectar for pollinating insects.

This week's reminders

Trees, shrubs and roses: Bare-root or root-balled deciduous trees or shrubs should be planted within the next few weeks. Young trees or shrubs that need to be moved should be shifted to their new position. Evergreens can be planted a bit later than deciduous trees. Prune rose bushes.

Flowers: Lifting and dividing of overgrown herbaceous flowers can be done now. This is the best time to move perennial flowers in gardens on heavy soil. If you want to raise your own geraniums, lobelia, busy Lizzie and bedding begonias, these should be sown now.

Fruit, vegetables and herbs: Sow early vegetables, such as early peas, broad beans and garlic outdoors. Tidy up globe artichokes, rhubarb crowns and asparagus plants now. Sow early varieties of cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce and onions in trays or pots in a greenhouse.

Lawns: Although the ground has been wet, as soon as the sod firms up, try to reduce that early growth of grass that builds up unnoticed. It has been quite a mild winter and spring, so far and moss has made a lot of growth. Lawn edges can be re-cut now as the soil is moist.

Greenhouse and house plants: Most greenhouse plants in pots will benefit from an increase in watering now as growth begins. Sow seeds of tomatoes for greenhouse growing, also peppers and chillies. Delayed sowing will delay cropping and ripening of the tail-end of the crop next October.

Read more

Meet the Maker: Annika Berglund

Galway student wins Irish EU young translator award