Sweet scent of spring Deer-resistant plants for the landscape | TheUnion.com
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Sweet scent of spring Deer-resistant plants for the landscape

As I write, snow is falling. Again. Yet only a few days ago, sweetly fragrant Daphne filled the entry garden with its rich scent just as the equally enticing sweet vanilla plant (Sarcococca) was fading.

Spring in the foothills is different each year. One of my students years ago, a passionate gardener from England, quipped that our spring is only six hours, and she had discovered she had “better be ready with her spade!” For me, a sense of spring begins with the first flowers.

In my garden, there are several early bloomers promising that winter will soon end. Weeks before the earth warms in spring, sweet fragrances invite us into the garden. While you may be reluctant to linger on the colder days, adding a few of these wonderful plants to your landscape will extend your “spring.”



Earliest to bloom is the sweet vanilla plant, Sarcococca, with tiny white flowers opening along the stems, almost hidden by the dark green leaves.

Its fragrance fills the air for a few weeks in February in my garden at 2,700-foot elevation.




Flowers of Sarcococca confusa are followed by round black berries. The fruits of Sarcococca ruscifolia ripen to a deep glossy red. With these berries remaining on the plant into the next bloom season, sprays picked for late winter bouquets will have both blossoms and fruit.

Sweet vanilla plant is an outstanding ornamental shrub. A handsome evergreen, it thrives in partial shade and will even tolerate low-light areas on the north side of the house or under a roof overhang. Plants mature with moderate growth to a four-foot height and a five-foot spread. Gracefully arching stems add to its beauty.

Tolerant of tree roots and low irrigation (once every two weeks for a mature specimen), Sarcococca also does well in a large container for years. Irrigation must be often for plants in a container. The deer do not touch this gem!

A closely related plant, Sarcococca hookerana humilis, is an evergreen groundcover, very attractive in the shade garden. Its bloom is later than the ornamental shrub and not as fragrant, though still very pleasing. Small black fruits are almost hidden by the glossy dark green foliage. Under a foot in height, this groundcover spreads by stolons, but is not aggressive.

Winter daphne (Daphne odora) has been blooming for a couple of weeks now, and will soon fade. Clusters of strongly scented pink flowers open gradually, but this scent is so powerful that you will note when the first blossoms release their exquisite fragrance. Many people have strong associations surrounding this lovely ornamental, memories of gardens in their past.

Daphne is another evergreen shrub that is deer-resistant. It is particular about its cultural requirements. Plants of Daphne odora ‘Marginata’ will be most successful in partial shade, though the cultivar with solid green leaves will be more tolerant of some limited sun exposure.

Good drainage is the key to success. Foothill gardeners with heavy clay soil must add ample compost to lighten the soil, and plant where winter rains and snow will drain quickly.

Very slow to grow, my Daphne now 28 years old, is 5 feet in spread and just under 3 feet in height (lower after this last snow storm, but it will recover!). Years ago I saw a much larger plant in an old foothill garden dating to the 1800s. But that is very rare.

Opening this week are the lightly scented white flowers of star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Buds resembling pussy willows have been swelling for weeks, undaunted by repeated snows. Multiple petals on each beautiful blossom withstand snow, heavy rain, and even hail.

Deciduous star magnolia has several seasons of interest: fuzzy buds and attractive gray-brown bark in winter, outstanding bloom in early spring, attractive shape and foliage in summer, and lovely golden leaves revealing orange berries in fall. This is a small tree or large ornamental shrub. In most foothill conditions, in good garden soil with irrigation once every two weeks in the heat of the summer, star magnolia grows slowly to a 10-foot height and spread. It prefers partial shade but will tolerate fun sun with summer irrigation. A mature Magnolia stellata is a year-round focal plant for the landscape, and the deer pass it by!

Soon, two more of my favorite fragrant evergreen shrubs for landscaping in deer country will blossom: Mexican orange (Choisya ternata) and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans). My sense of spring continues for weeks, even when snow storms blanket my garden.

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Fragrant and deer-resistant ornamentals

• Sweet vanilla plant (Sarcococca ruscifolia, S. confusa)

• Winter daphne (Daphne odora)

• Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)

• Mexican orange (Choisya ternata)

• Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans)

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Carolyn Singer has gardened in Nevada County for 28 years. She is the owner of Foothill Cottage Gardens (www.fcgardens.com). Her book on deer-resistant perennials and subshrubs will be released nest month. Send your garden questions and comments to csinger@stardustweb.net.


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