Among the contributions to the display at our meeting in January were some winter-flowering shrubs with, of course, lovely perfume. Two of them were different species of sarcococca. As I was checking the spelling for the label – so many c’s and where does the double one go? – I realized I didn’t know where such a strange name originated or, in fact, very much about sarcococcas at all. I resolved to do a bit of research.

The name is derived from the Greek sarkos, which means flesh and kokkos, a berry, alluding to the fleshy fruits. It is in the family Buxaceae and is sometimes referred to as Sweet box or Christmas box because of its perfume in the winter months. They are usually grown for this fragrance so whenever I have seen one, or more correctly, smelled one, I have just breathed in the gorgeous scent and never looked closely at the flowers. I was, therefore, in for a surprise.

The small, white, petalless, male and female flowers are borne on the same plant in clusters or spikes in the leaf axils. The male flowers are just bunches of four stamens, about 10mm long, sometimes with conspicuous anthers; the females are tiny, produced below the male in the inflorescence and have either two or three styles depending on the species. I hope you can see both in this image.
The genus Sarcococca contains about 14 species of evergreen shrubs found in moist, shady places in forests and thickets from China to the Himalayas and SE Asia. There seem to be three species together with their varieties or cultivars that are the most popular and easily available.
A sarcococca showing male and female flowers
Sarcococca confusa appears to be the most well-known. It is a dense, spreading shrub with glossy, elliptical, dark green leaves with wavy edges, to about 6mm. The male flowers have white stamens; the female ones have either two or three styles and once fertilized develop into shining black berries, many of which remain until the new flowers appear the following winter. Heights quoted for this plant vary from 75cm to 3m plus! I have not seen it above about waist height but it might depend on growing conditions. It was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by Ernest Wilson but its origin is uncertain, probably China. It received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
Sarcococca confusa showing the black berries

Sarcococca hookeriana is, it would seem, rare but the form widely grown in gardens is Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna. This variety has slender, tapered leaves and an upright habit. The stamens in the male flowers have white filaments and cream anthers and the female flowers have just two styles. Both are tinted pink. The fruits are spherical black berries. Again opinions vary as to its height, ranging from 1m to 2m. This one is rhizomatous and slowly increases into thickets. It was introduced in 1908 from western China by Ernest Wilson.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ has young shoots flushed dark purple-pink. It received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf (about 60cm), clump-forming shrub, spreading by suckers. It has erect shoots with glossy, oblong dark green leaves. The flowers are white, tinged pink; the male ones have pink anthers and the female have two styles and are followed by black berries. It was introduced from western China in 1907 by Ernest Wilson.

Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Winter Gem’ is a new hybrid bred by Peter Moore from a cross between S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ and S. hookeriana var. humilis. It is an upright, dense shrub, to around 70cm high, with glossy, dark-green leaves and highly-scented white flowers, opening from red buds. The male flowers have red anthers and the female flowers are followed by spherical berries that ripen from red to black.

A thicket of Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna under willows
Sarcococca ruscifolia var. chinensis

Sarcococca ruscifolia was introduced by Ernest Wilson in 1901 but is rare in cultivation. S. ruscifolia var. chinensis is more common and is a small, slow-growing evergreen shrub with glossy, narrowly-ovate leaves, small, fragrant, creamy-white flowers. Although similar in general appearance to S. confusa it has dark red berries and the female flowers have three styles. Once again estimates of height vary widely, ranging from 50cm to 1.5m.

Sarcococca ruscifolia var. chinensis ‘Dragon Gate’ is from one of Roy Lancaster’s collections in the mountains in Yunnan, China. It has narrowly elliptic dark green leaves and highly fragrant small cream flowers. The lower females bear dark red fruit in late winter. It received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012.
Dan Pearson has one by his gate to welcome you and says that he likes this fine-leaved form of S. ruscifolia for its delicacy and grace, lighter than its parent and therefore good for a small space.

Now I’m a little clearer as to what I should be looking for but, if I manage to find any of these very desirable plants, where should I place them in the garden? Well, just about anywhere it would seem. They appear to be extremely amenable to a variety of difficult situations.

The Hillier Manual says that they succeed in any fertile soil, being especially happy in chalk soils.
Graham Stuart Thomas writes that they thrive in any well-drained soil, limy – even chalky – or acid, preferably in shade or part shade, and even in dry, rooty places. He adds that they will “fit in almost anywhere, meekly doing their little bit.” He also advises planting in groups beneath large shrubs and trees  – “for they delight in shade and shelter.”
The RHS Encyclopedia advises a moderately fertile, humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil in deep or partial shade and that they can be grown as ground cover in a woodland garden or as a low, informal hedge. It adds that they are tolerant of atmospheric pollution, dry shade and neglect.

I must also bear in mind the main reason for growing sarcococcas, their perfume, and place them where this can be appreciated.

In a piece entitled ‘Scents where you sit’ Christopher Lloyd writes, “All the species of Sarcococca waft a delicious smell but flower in January and February so it’ll be a question of sniffing as you walk past them than of sitting near them.”

Margery Fish says to plant under the north wall of a courtyard where their perfume can be noticed and enjoyed.

In her Wood Garden, Beth Chatto explains, you might walk past some small, insignificant shrubs without noticing them but then, some yards away downwind, you detect a curiously sweet scent, half spice, half almond, perhaps. When you turn to find where the perfume comes from you see the low, box-like shrubs, Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna and S. confusa, one either side of the entrance.

Dan Pearson likes to ‘winkle’ them into shady places and under the skirts of deciduous trees and shrubs. They are in their element in these conditions not only for their shiny foliage but for their delicious perfume.

I have also seen it mentioned that they can be grown in pots so this might be a way to have them exactly where you want them in the winter and moved into a cool shady place in the summer.

Well, I am certainly going to find lots of places to ’winkle’ in some other sarcococcas to add to the one I already have, which I’m also going to appreciate a little more now I know so much about it.

I will now go and cut a few stems, add a couple of snowdrops and pop them in a vase so that I can enjoy them indoors as well as out.

Additional info you might like:

You can find out more about plant breeder Peter Moore here.

Crüg Farm Plants has a list of Sarcococca as long as your arm here.