Foliage of sweet box outdoes flowers.

While bloom cycles of most plants are accelerated by the unusually warm winter, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, seems to be blooming a bit late. It should have bloomed sometime in winter, and finished a month ago. The tiny pale greenish white flowers are certainly nothing to look at, but they produce a remarkably rich fragrance that seems like it would be delicious with coffee.

The foliage is very glossy and dark green, like that of English holly, but the leaves are small and lack spines. Red berries sometimes develop, but are only abundant enough to be notably colorful on plants that are distressed. Sweet box may take a few years to get established and grow to only about three feet high and wide, although it can slowly get a bit larger.

Since it is naturally an understory plant, sweet box prefers at least a bit of shade. Harsh exposure fades foliage. Because of its tolerance of partial shade, as well as its low and dense growth, sweet box is ideal for obscuring foundations. After the first few years, it does not need too much water. It gets established more efficiently in rich soil.


18 thoughts on “Sweet Box

  1. I see this will thrive in our area, and now I’m wondering if it might be the source of the wonderful fragrance that comes once a year, in very early spring. There’s something that I’ve never found with a fragrance that fits your description, and the tiny flowers might have escaped my notice. The next time that fragrance wafts through the air, I’ll look more closely at the shrubs.

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    1. The dark glossy green foliage is quite pretty. It has the color and sheen of English holly, but without the unpleasant prickliness. It tends to stay low. Landscape designers tend to designate it as a foundation planting, so you might see it as such within a designed landscape. (It tolerates the shade, stays low and dense, and provides a nice fragrance near porches and windows.) Otherwise, it is reasonably easy to recognize by the foliage. The fragrance can lead you to the foliage, even if you do not notice the bloom right away.


      1. English holly is politely naturalized here. I happen to like it, although most everyone else who lives with it dislikes it. It was not so common in the Santa Clara Valley, where I pruned it regularly to keep it looking as good as it does naturally here, just a few miles away. However, I do not notice the fragrance of the bloom at all. There is another species known as holly olive, which is really Osmanthus heterophylla. It is quite fragrant, and not as prickly.

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      2. I should have been more specific. American holly, Ilex opaca, which is in the woods of the southeast and can get up to 40 feet tall. It has a lovely white wood, prized by carvers and the flowers have a scent I can’t believe hasn’t been bottled. Sweet, with enough of an edge not to be cloying, and it wafts through the air around here when they bloom. The other tree that’s amazing is Magnolia grandiflora–that blossom sends a smell of citrus through the air. Whenever one is low enough, I stick my nose in it..

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      3. I have not seen American holly since I saw it in school. There was a single tired specimen in the arboretum. I always liked it in pictures, and because it is a North American species, and intended to get some for my own garden. It is not available here. I would need to order it online. Southern magnolia is common here, but the fragrance is not transmitted will in the arid air.

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      4. Oh, I definitely know the fragrance of Southern magnolia. It just does not get very far from the flowers here. I sort of miss the trees. They used to be more common, particularly in Southern California.


  2. This is lovely stuff and in some landscaping around here, but I’ve not been around when it was flowering, I don’t think. I’ll be on the lookout for blossoms, though I’m not leaving the house much at the moment….

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      1. Yes, humidity helps here and somehow the scents don’t mix; you can walk from one pocket to another. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for this plant, though given its habits it may already have blossomed.

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