Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet)
Wintersweet is grown chiefly for the wonderful scent produced by its small flowers in late winter and early spring.
About this species
Wintersweet has been cultivated in China for more than 1,000 years and has been introduced to Japan, Korea, Europe, Australia and the United States. It is a familiar plant in British gardens, where it is grown mainly for its gorgeous scent. The rather insignificant, creamy-yellow, waxy flowers are borne on bare stems from about December to March, with the leaves appearing later.
Long esteemed in China and Japan for its fragrance, many parts of the plant are rich in essential oils and are also used for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Wintersweet was introduced to Japan from China during the 17th century, and to Britain, under the name of Calycanthus praecox, a century later. Mr William Dean, gardener to Lord Coventry at Croome Court, Worcester, wrote to William Curtis that ‘My Lord received the plant from China in 1766...’. The plant figured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1799 came from Mr Whitley, a nurseryman of Old Brompton Road, and originally from Coventry, ‘...his Lordship having presented most of the Nurserymen about town with plants of it...’.
Geography & Distribution
Native to China (from eastern Sichuan and Hubei to Zhejiang), where it occurs in montane forests, at 500–1,100 m above sea level. It is also widely planted as an ornamental in China and many other temperate areas.
Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) fruit (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)
A deciduous shrub (or sometimes with persistent leaves), up to 3 m high and wide (up to 13 m tall in the wild), with rough, opposite, dark green leaves and small, solitary, highly scented, yellowish flowers borne on short stalks in winter and spring before the leaves appear.
The outer petals (tepals) are waxy, almost transparent, in appearance, while the inner tepals are smaller and usually purplish. The flowers are beetle-pollinated.
Named cultivars include Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’, which has slightly larger flowers and yellow inner tepals, and C. praecox ‘Grandiflorus’, a larger shrub, with bigger leaves and larger, but less strongly scented, pure yellow flowers, with red-stained inner tepals. Both cultivars have been presented with an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Threats & Conservation
In 2005, the IUCN-SSC Chinese Plant Specialist Group listed Chimonanthus praecox as Vulnerable according to IUCN Red List criteria. The main threat to wild populations is forest clearance and the resulting fragmentation of populations. As a result of the long history of cultivation of this species, a large number of wintersweet cultivars are grown in China, although many remain unnamed. DNA-marker technology is now being used in China to try to improve the understanding and management of the genetic diversity of wintersweet germplasm resources there.
Owing to its sweetly fragrant flowers, wintersweet is one of the most popularly planted ornamentals in temperate China, and is widely cultivated in temperate areas elsewhere. The flowers are used as a folk medicine in China for treating measles, coughs, tonsillitis and pharyngitis. Much scientific research has been undertaken, especially in China, on the medicinal (especially anti-fungal) properties of Chimonanthus praecox. Its essential oils are used in cosmetics, perfumery and aromatherapy. The flowers are used to flavour herbal teas, and are also added to potpourri mixtures. In China, wintersweet has long been used to scent linen, in the way that lavender has been used elsewhere.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) fruit cut in half (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Chimonanthus praecox seeds.
Wintersweet grows well in a sheltered position, particularly against a warm wall in full sun or in a sunny place on the edge of woodland in warm climates, in moist, but well-drained soil. It can be grown in most soils, but does best on chalky ones. It usually develops into a lax, untidy shrub. It is quite slow to flower (plants grown from seed can take 12–14 years to produce flowers), and should be pruned only very lightly, immediately after flowering. It is best grown from seed. Branches close to the ground can also be layered in late summer, although root formation may take up to two years.
This species at Kew
Chimonanthus praecox flowers at Kew (Image: Martyn Rix)
Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’ can be seen growing on the outside wall of the Duke’s Garden.
Both pressed and dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Chimonanthus praecox are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens, including images, can be seen on-line in the Herbarium Catalogue.
Curtis's Botanical Magazine
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.
Now well over two hundred years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.
Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Blackwell Publishing.
See the Wiley-Blackwell Subscription Information page for rates (for both print and online).
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