While on a walk, a honeyed fragrance unexpectedly tickles my nose. Although I don’t immediately see the source, the vanilla-perfumed air is unmistakable and I know in an instant that Sarcococca is nearby. Why more people don’t have this amazing plant, commonly called sweet box, in their gardens is a mystery to me.
While there are 11 species of the evergreen, broadleaf shrub ranging from 12-inches to 6-feet in height, the two most popular varieties here in the Pacific Northwest are Sarcococca ruscifolia and S. hookeriana var. humilis.
S. ruscifolia typically grows 3-4 feet high and wide, but can reach a height of 5 or 6 feet with time. Glossy, dark green leaves look great year-round, but the plant really shines in late January into February. The dark foliage is a perfect foil for the creamy white, tassel-like racemes. The sweetly fragranced blooms are followed by dark red berries that ripen to black. Plant S. ruscifolia as a single specimen near a doorway to maximize enjoyment, or en masse along a shady path you frequent in winter.
S. hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf variety of sweet box, typically reaching only 12-18 inches high. The leathery, slender pointed leaves are similar to S. ruscifolia, as are the white vanilla-scented blooms. After flowering, the plant produces black seeds. S. hookeriana var. humilis spreads very slowly by runners, creating a handsome, evergreen ground cover. Or, include it in your container gardens for year-round texture and winter interest.
Both varieties like a lightly amended soil; garden compost is always good at planting time, plus mulch every couple years. Sweet box enjoys shade to half-day sun (with protection from hot afternoon sun), thrives in nearly all soil types with proper draingage, and is hardy in our zone. These plants are a great choice for Pacific Northwest gardens, especially as the heady smell of its blooms is so welcome during the grey days of late January and February.
West Seattle resident Patty J Campbell is a botanist and garden authority with forty years experience in Western Washington landscapes.