Spring is such an exciting time at ground level – emerging bulbs, brand new shoots thrusting upwards – you can easily forget about shrubs, which are so often seen as the garden’s ‘boring’ backbone. But this is the best time of year for many shrubby plants, including lots with scented flowers.
Because spring weather is so fickle, shrubs can’t use large, blowsy flowers to attract their insect pollinators and could easily be spoiled by frost or a late fall of snow. The flowers have to be modest and relatively small to survive inclement weather, but to make sure they’re still just as alluring to insects many, such as daphnes, are beautifully fragrant.
Among the best for spring flowers and scent is Daphne bholua. Its sparse branches hold leathery leaves and highly perfumed purple-pink flowers from midwinter to spring, often followed by round black fruit. The beautiful variety ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is the best evergreen Daphne bholua to grow because it’s the most reliably hardy but even so, won’t enjoy temperatures below -5C/23F for long. From February it opens its intensely scented flowers, with petals that are purple-pink outside and white within. Pale pink ‘Gurkha’ is deciduous and hardier, tolerating temperatures down to -15C/5F. Both grow between 2-4m (6½-13ft) tall.
Or choose worry-free, deciduous, Daphne mezereum which grows to 1.2m (4ft) tall, with rich, deep pink flowers. It grows wild in the UK, so is one of the easiest daphnes to grow in gardens. From late winter to early spring it produces purple-pink flowers along the length of its branches before leaves appear, followed by red fruit.
Corylopsis aren’t widely grown but these deciduous shrubs have an understated beauty. Species include Corylopsis spicata, with primrose yellow, cowslip-scented flowers held in long, dangling chains, the flowers sometimes rimmed on their bottom edge with orangey-red. It’s early to blossom, at its best in March and grows to around 2m (6ft).
You could also try the white-flowered, scented version of forsythia (abeliophyllum), Ribes odoratum with its starry golden-yellow flowers that smell of cloves, fothergilla (pictured above), with powder puff flowers in white, as well as brilliantly colourful autumn foliage and, later in spring, the bubblegum-scented philadelphus.
Who said shrubs were boring?
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All foxgloves are lovely, including the classic species with spires of purple flowers. Let it self-seed in the garden for natural-looking drifts
Or, ring the changes and try a foxglove with a difference. This creamy-yellow flowered species loves the same shady conditions.
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