Sarcococca spp.

Fragrant Sweetbox

Sarcococca ruscifolia

Dark and shady places such as the north walls of a home can be challenging sites to plant.  Sarcococca is an ideal shrub for lowlight situations like these.  Thriving in everything from part sun to deep shade, Sweetbox is an attractive and glossy broad-leaf evergreen providing a good backdrop for airier ferns and perennials.  There are a handful of different species ranging from upright shrubs to slowly spreading groundcovers.  They all have simple leathery leaves and are for the most part deer resistant, making this genus a problem solver in a myriad of ways.  Not to mention they bloom in late winter when most plants haven't even broken dormancy!  Even though their small fringy flowers are not what you would consider showy, they amply make up for it with a powerfully sweet fragrance that is sure to get attention.  Add red to black berries that lend a festive quality later in the year and you've got a four season plant!  In return this understated plant merely asks for moderately fertile soil with decent drainage and regular water throughout the hotter months.  That is not to say Sweetbox wouldn't prefer rich, humusy and acidic soil, but it is quite adaptable once established. 

Sarcococca ruscifolia or Fragrant Sweetbox is the largest of the more common species reaching 3-6' high and wide with an arching habit and more rounded leaves.  It is known to naturally espalier itself against a house and thus can be useful in tight spots and under windows.   It's growth is slow to moderate and can easily be kept at 3’.  Sarcococca hookeriana v. humilis has narrower, more elongated leaves and spreads slowly by stolons from 4-8' wide with stems reaching 18" tall.  Also called Himalayan Sweetbox, it is a great companion under trees or at the base of more colorful deciduous shrubs due to it's colonizing nature and tolerance of root competition.  There are a few newer hybrids of this Himalayan species that bridge the gap between the two aforementioned Sarcococcas.  'Fragrant Valley' is a compact yet vigorous selection growing to 18-24" tall and 3-4' wide.  'Fragrant Mountain' attains a slightly larger size at 2-3' tall and 3-4' wide, making it a great alternative to Skimmia japonica.  Both cultivars are disease resistant and tolerant of drier soils and less than ideal conditions.  Sarcococca species are great supporting cast members for the shady garden (…we can't all be stars!) - and a must have for lovers of fragrant plants.