At this time of the year I sneak outside between rain storms and check out my favorite gardens to see how the plants are getting along. It is a difficult time of year, often so wet and warm. many plants are weighed down by the rain and some become almost flattened by the weight of the water hanging on branches and stems. Large flowers can become discolored and droop badly. A genus of plants which is often overlooked until this time of year are Sweet Box or Saracocca which put on a fragrant bright show every year.
Sweet Box are from east and south east Asia and ranging through China into the Himalyan Mountains. The first type was brought to Europe in 1901 was Sarococca ruscifolia. It is native to western Hubei, Sichuan and Yunnan where it grows on shady shady cliffs which are often made of Limestone. This species was originally discovered and collected by Augustine Henry in 1887. Another species from the same area is S. humilis which is smaller and more refined in it’s growth. S. hookeriana is the species found the farthest west and is found in the Himalayans and into Nepal, forms of it are found growing with the others in China. It is unknown exactly where S. confusa originates, but one can guest it was near the others.
One often does not notice Sarcococca until one day you walk by one which is in bloom and the fragrance attracts your attention. The scent is quite potent and fills areas especially on the occasional warm day at this time of the year. These plants have powerful alkaloids and other constituents which make them less attractive to insects, disease and fungus which attack other genus. The powerful chemicals are recognized in Asian medicines and extracts are used in topical medications as well as in tonics. The name of the extract sold by Chinese herbalists is ‘Qing Xiang Gui’.
Sweet Box are an easy adaptable plant which is underused. It has attractive smaller foliage which is pleasingly elliptical and glossy green. Species such as ruscifolia, confusa and hookeriana can be used as low hedging which grows to 4ft(1.2m) and can easily be clipped and shaped. S. humilis and it’s forms are lower growing and more suckering, it can be used as a low groundcover or mass planted. They are also an essential addition to any winter garden. All Sarcococca tolerate shade to deep shade (if you are willing to forgo the flowering) and make excellent understory plants.
Growing Sweet Box is easy as they are not fussy plants and have no real pests or disease to deal with. as they are woodland plants they like rich humusy soil which will retain some moisture sureing the drier seasons. They tolerate some lime better than many other species. Placement is best where they get some morning sun but none later in the day as they will yellow and burn in the summer. Dappled light is an excellent situation for them. They are classed as slow growing shrubs so they will not outgrow a space quickly.
Sarcococca are rated at zones 7 -9(-15c or 0-10f). S. rucifolia, confusa and hookeriana grow 1.2m(4ft) by the same. S. humilis and it’s forms are generally no more than 1m(3ft) and some forms grow only half that height.
Sweet Box links:
very detailed article about Sweet Box: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2732/
Paghat’s Garden article on S. ruscifolia: http://www.paghat.com/saracococca.html
Finnerty Gardens: http://external.uvic.ca/gardens/
Until we meet again soon…..