Try these fragrant flowers for your (indoor) winter garden

Enjoy the beauty—and sweet smells—of these houseplants that blossom during our coldest months.

Being cooped up for the winter makes us crave not only the warmth but the smell of summer. If you can’t afford a tropical vacation, visit one of our local greenhouses to find many houseplants known for their deliciously fragrant flowers or scented foliage.  

Photo by John W. Hession

Catherine Preston holds a hoya blossom in one of the greenhouses at House By the Side of the Road in Wilton. Among other plants there is a white gardenia in front of her on the left and a Calamondon orange on the right. The little pink flowers on the table behind her are cyclamen.

The jasmine family

The jasmine family is a large one, having more than two hundred species, including evergreen shrubs and deciduous vines that are native to temperate and tropical areas in China, Thailand, Africa and the Mediterranean.

For a reliable winter bloomer, look for a sambac jasmine, such as ‘Maid of Orleans’, ‘Belle of India’ or ‘Grand Duke of Tuscany’. They have a sweet fragrance, boast white double blossoms and are everbloomers. Quenby Jaus of Wentworth Greenhouses in Rollinsford says, “The sambacs are highly fragrant, twining plants. They flower best on your sunniest windowsill.” Sambacs love humidity so Jaus suggests frequent misting and positioning their pots on a tray of moist pebbles.

For a touch of color, try yellow jasmine (J. humile ‘Revolutum’), which is an everbloomer with small, bright yellow blossoms. Extremely fragrant, it is sometimes called Italian jasmine, even though it is really from Asia. The plants can take night temperatures below
45 degrees so they are perfect for your coldest windowsill.

True to its common name, winter jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) actually needs cold nights to set buds. Catherine Preston of the House By the Side of the Road in Wilton says, “Like all the jasmines they need full sun, water when dry and a dip in temperature for a few weeks.” The vines are hardy to 20 degrees, and night temperatures as low as 35 degrees won’t prevent them from blooming. Although a vine by nature, winter jasmine is happy growing in a hanging basket, or you can twine its dark green, leathery leaves up a trellis. The pretty pink buds turn white as they open into five-petalled, star-like flowers; their scent is strongest in the evening. To encourage new growth, prune the stems back hard after the blossoms die.

Photo by Jerry Pavia
Winter-blooming jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) is a seasonal plant that sets buds when the days shorten and the evenings get cold. The flowers are very fragrant, especially at night.
Click the arrows for more indoor flower ideas

Jasmine look-alikes

Photo by Jerry Cavia
Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) can brighten your home during the darkest days of the year. Be advised that all parts of this plant are toxic, so hang it far away from children and pets.

There are also many jasmine impostors in the plant world: they have similar looking leaves and growth habit; bear sweet-scented, jasmine-like flowers; and their common names may include the word “jasmine.” Without knowing the Latin name, it is easy to mistake them for jasmine family members. Thomas Jefferson grew what he called jessamine, the yellow Carolina jasmine, which is not a jasmine at all but Gelsemium sempervivans. It likes cool night temperatures; has very fragrant, bright yellow blooms; and is perfect for a hanging basket, blossoming indoors from November to June.

 Stephanotis is also called Madagascar jasmine because it looks similar with its twining vines and shiny, dark green leaves. “They can bloom year-round,” Jaus says, “but usually it is April through October.” From fall through spring, grow stephanotis in a bright, cool location to promote more flower buds. They blossom on new growth, so Jaus suggests selective pruning on older plants after they have finished flowering.

The name “night-blooming jasmine” summons up memories of a fragrant summer’s eve. Another jasmine look-alike, Cestrum nocturnum, is actually in the potato family. Native to the Caribbean, Cestrum nocturnum is also called ‘Lady of the Night.’ It has pale green, tubular-shaped flowers that are indeed very fragrant in the evening. ‘Lady of the Night’ blooms off and on year-round and can take night temperatures below 45 degrees. ‘Lady of the Night’ wants to grow into a tall, untidy evergreen shrub, so prune it hard after blooming to keep it in bounds.

Orange-scented jasmine is actually Murraya paniculata. An everbloomer native to Southeast Asia, Murraya paniculata has shiny dark green leaves and creamy white flowers that look and smell like orange blossoms. Like the true jasmines, Murraya paniculata can take cold night temperatures. The plants will grow to be between one and two feet tall.

Gardenias are sometimes referred to as Cape jasmine. Their scent has been described as mysterious and intoxicating, and the rose-like, creamy white flowers are absolutely gorgeous, but the plants can be challenging to grow. “They are finicky plants,” Jaus says, “but they have the most buttery, delicious smell!”

She suggests growing gardenias in bright, indirect light and keeping the soil slightly moist. Yellow leaves are a sign of overwatering. “To blossom, gardenias need 65- to 75-degree temperatures during the day, dropping to 50 to 60 degrees at night,” Jaus explains. “They are heavy feeders, too. So feed them regularly with an acid fertilizer.”

Preston agrees that gardenias are one of the most difficult plants to grow. “They need extra humidity when grown indoors,” she says. Some gardenias grow to be fairly large shrubs, not practical for a windowsill but quite striking in a sunroom or conservatory. ‘White Gem’ is a commonly found dwarf plant with single flowers that grows to be only about two feet tall.

Click the arrow below for more indoor flower ideas

Dwarf citrus

Photo by Jerry Pavia

Meyer lemon is another dwarf citrus that is fun to grow, has very fragrant flowers and bears edible fruit.
It has a slightly sweeter juice than a regular lemon because it is a cross between a lemon and an orange.
Homemade limoncello anyone?

If the heavy aromas of jasmine and its look-alikes are too much for you, try dwarf citrus. They have heavenly scented flowers and bear fruit!

“With a southern exposure,” Preston says, “dwarf citrus will flower and fruit off and on all the time.”

Jaus agrees, saying, “They like bright, direct light and average home temperatures, but keep them out of drafts and away from heat sources.”

Dwarf citrus also need high humidity, so Preston suggests misting the leaves or keeping the pots near a humidifier.

There are many types of dwarf citrus to choose from, including Meyer lemon, Key lime, Persian lime, calamondon, tangerines and navel oranges. And don’t forget kumquat; Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and kumquat is one of its good-luck symbols.

Other options

Hoya is called “the wax plant” because of its round clusters of waxy-looking flowers. “They are very fragrant,” says Preston, “and will tolerate low light and neglect as far as watering.” There are several types, including the variegated Hindu Rope plant (Hoya carnosa) with mocha-scented, pink flowers and green leaves edged with white and pink. Hoya bella is a miniature variety, and there are compact forms that have crumpled-looking foliage. Instead of waxy flowers, H.lacunosa has fuzzy white blossoms that smell like cinnamon and H. odorata has loose clusters of bloom that are triggered by shortening day length. “Hoyas are very easy to grow and produce fragrant clusters of flowers when pot-bound,” Jaus says. “They are best grown in a hanging basket or on a trellis. Don’t rush to remove the spent blossoms because they may flower again from the same point.”

In addition, Jaus says there are some scented primroses and cyclamen available in the winter months. Preston also recommends growing aromatic herbs—such as rosemary and lavender—on your windowsill. Both Wentworth Greenhouses and the House By the Side of the Road greenhouses have fragrant orchids for sale.

If blossoms aren’t important but you want a plant that provides sensory delight all year round, try a scented geranium. Although the flowers are not showy, just touching a leaf releases the aroma of roses, mint, chocolate or lemon, to name just a few possible scents. With several hundred known varieties, there are plenty to choose from. Scented geraniums can be tall, compact or rambling; they have velvety or smooth leaves, ranging from blue-gray to deep green, to variegated with curled, deeply cut or scalloped edges. The multitude of fragrances are grouped into six classes: rose, lemon, fruit, mint, spice and pungent.

Easy to grow, scented geraniums like a humus-y soil, are slightly acidic and are fast draining. “Let the soil get bone dry between waterings,” Preston says, “and never let scented geraniums sit in a wet saucer.” They prefer a cool, sunny spot and are somewhat drought resistant—a good plant for people who water infrequently. “I fertilize every time I water by putting just a few drops of liquid fertilizer in my watering can,” Preston says. Growing to between eighteen-inches to three-feet tall, the plants need to be cut back regularly to maintain their shape. “They can get leggy,” she says. All scented geraniums are fairly easy to propagate by rooting cuttings in damp sand or vermiculite.

The oils of scented geraniums are often used in aromatherapy to invoke feelings of peacefulness, calm and happiness. Lemon scents clear the mind, while rose is uplifting and used for banishing anxiety and depression.

Brighten your day by bringing home a winter-blooming houseplant, and let its fragrance transport you to another world. The weather outside might be frightful, but with fragrant houseplants, indoors can be delightful.   

Categories: Gardening & Landscape