PLANT OF THE WEEK #65: Lonicera fragrantissima

Make no bones about it, Lonicera fragrantissima is a rubbish shrub.  The winter honeysuckle is a bulky, unwieldy thing with a branching structure that takes angularity to a degree of ugliness you’d not previously imagined possible, and remains indecisive about whether to be comfortingly solid or airily sparse, so is neither, and whether to be evergreen or deciduous, so fires right down the middle.

The only possible reason you’d want it is for it’s truly heavenly-scented small white flowers throughout the winter.  And want it I do. I’ve just planted one, having wanted it for at least thirty years.

Back in the late eighties a gardening friend was living in the cottage at the entrance to Bolobek, Victoria, and I dropped in on him about this time of year.  In the corner of that charming, dark cottage was a charming dark circular table, upon which was a round glass vase holding a great tangle of winter honeysuckle (all leaves removed – flowers only) supporting a smattering of paper white narcissus.  It’s quite possible that the aching beauty of the thing has grown with each passing year, but there’s never been a time since when I haven’t wanted a winter honeysuckle, in order to one day re-live the moment.

About eight years ago I took a cutting from one on the main path of my son’s primary school.  The resultant plant has languished in a pot ever since, as I’ve fretted over where to plant it.  Because you really don’t want to see the thing.  It’s never, ever a visual asset. 

I admit that I’ve long since harboured a secret conviction that if it was pruned properly every year, I could make something of this shrub, and prevent it looking like 2m+ ball of steel wool with the odd leaf and flower here and there.  I reckon if I annually took all the old wood out of it, so none was more than about three years old, it could be kept fresh and buoyant.  But the least believable part of any of that is that I could stick with such a plan for more than a year or two.  I’d likely forget it for a decade or more, then have to attend to it with a chainsaw.

But some recent removals have opened up a perfect ‘down-the-back’ spot.  It’s in the ground.  Now to get hold of some paper whites, and the perfect spherical vase.

Have you ever managed to keep Lonicera fragrantissima looking good?  Please tell us how!


  1. Hi Michael,
    Thanks so much for Plant of the Week. I recently stayed at an Air bnb in Bendigo with a rather sad little garden except for a heavenly scented shrub which looked like rubbish and is just as you described. I like you desperately want one having smelt it just once, but I didn’t know what it was. Now I know I shall go on the hunt! As always thanks for your blog and sorry to hear that your travel plans have been ‘locked’ down. Cheers Andrea

    1. Thanks Andrea. And glad to be of service. It can be remarkably difficult to identify plants you see in that kind of situation. All the best finding one. You might need to get back to the Airbnb and take some cuttings

  2. Hi Michael,
    Lonicera fragrantissima is one of my absolute favourite, must have shrubs if I design a Country Garden! Admittedly, I use it for its ‘fruit loops’ scent, indestructibility through drought and dry summers, and it is often positioned in a old fashioned shrubbery, with ‘neater’, fully evergreen plantings at the front. It strikes easily from hardwood cuttings so is economic as well as perfuming the winter garden. I garden in the New England region of NSW, so full frost hardiness is a must. I conscend that it is a little rugged looking , like Buddleja salviilfolia (another winter flowering favourite that will defy the -8 defree frosts), but the spring apple green foliage is a delight! I have clipped mine back hard this Autumn and my shrubs looks very tidy- I have multiple throughout my garden, growing in part shade so that will restrict the high growth rate. They are in full flower, one with Hellebores at it’s feet, intertwined with deep purple violets. I have two more in pots ready to plant this week along my front fenceline- perfume to share with passers by!
    Thank you for your astute & honest appraisal of Plant of the Week!
    Angela Sole , Sustainable Plant Design

    1. I love the contrast between this and Anne’s comment above (or it may be below…). And you’re right to point to its indestructibility – I meant to mention that.

  3. Hi Michael.
    If you train it on a pyramid or a trellis and tie it all back it should look a lot better. Might look rubbishy because the old leaves are trying to fall off.Perfume is amazing.Plant it in the garden in the back ground and you can’t see it but you can smell it.

    1. yeah, there’s something really irritating about an indecisively deciduous plant. You want all the leaves on, or all off. And yeah, training onto something at least imposes the very discipline I was talking about, forcing you to attend to old and unproductive branches etc

  4. Me mum had it. I don’t want it. It used to tangle along the side fence amongst a rampant japonica, a crudely pruned ancient bottlebrush, hacked at prunus and some feral nandina. Gardening was only ever a chore, but the honeysuckle fitted comfortably in.

    1. Sounds like it was in perfect, irritatingly obliging, company

  5. I’m in the process of getting rid of it. Even in 4 acres it’s not worth having.

    1. I love this, Anne. Here’s to decisiveness, whether well informed (as here), or ill-informed! Either way, it has a place!

  6. I have had a “thicket” of Lonicera frangrantissima in the last two gardens I have had, in the upper blue mountains. There seems to be quite a bit around here. Thank you so much for posting this as I love the scent and it’s hardiness but I have just been searching for what I can possibly do to tame it! I have had the idea of having a outdoor bath among it but I think I am going to thin out the thicket and plant some smaller evergreens in the front. How exciting. Thanks everyone.

    1. The alternative would be to cut it to the ground every five to eight years, and not touch it in the meantime. Either way, I’m convinced that it’s at least theoretically possible to keep it young and fresh (though with that branching structure, probably never elegant, as such)

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