Jasmine -- the elusive, sweet-smelling star of winter

Special to The Times

First strong, then subtle, the sweet and somewhat elusive scent of winter-flowering jasmine is one of the season’s little joys. Detected on early-morning walks, late in the evening or whenever the air is still, its gentle scent is quite unlike summer’s sultry night-blooming “jasmine,” which can smell like a fabric softener. This one is crisp and clean like the winter air. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit evasive and fleeting. What did I just smell, and where is it coming from?

From a smallish vine, it turns out, that literally covers itself with half-inch-wide four-petaled flowers. The china-white blooms open from rose-colored buds, and they completely hide the foliage on plants that are a few years old. Oddly, if you stick your nose in the middle of this cloud of flowers, you will smell very little. Like a fine perfume, they are best appreciated from a few feet away.

Years ago, my wife and I put one of these vines on a trellis over our front entry, so this delightful scent would welcome us home -- and overpower the smells of the city. At other times of the year, Osmanthus fragrans and heliotropes add their soft scents, but in winter, this jasmine vine rules.


Unlike the night-blooming “jasmine” of summer, which is actually a Jessamine, or Gelsimium, and quite a weed, this one is a true jasmine, Jasminum polyanthemum, and reasonably well-behaved. It can easily be kept small, on an arbor, for instance, but it can grow to 20 feet. It’s fast and can cover a small arbor in a year. I’ve seen it covering entire cottages, but I’ve also seen individuals growing demurely in hanging baskets on apartment balconies. It’s sometimes used as a somewhat rambunctious ground cover, although don’t confuse this jasmine with the tidier and smaller star jasmine, which is technically a Trachelospermum. It also blooms nicely, but seldom with such exuberance, and not this time of the year.

When Jasminum polyanthemum finishes flowering in late February or March, the vine becomes choked with dead, dry, tannish blossoms. They don’t fall off on their own, but must be cut off, and the only practical way is with a pair of hedge shears. Start whacking and don’t worry about the consequences -- anything cut off will quickly regrow.

Every few years, we actually cut ours completely to the ground and let it start over. It re-covers the arbor within the year and is again filled with blooms the following January. We even put the long, vining stems to use by coiling them into loose wreaths that we let dry and hang on the entry gate.

This jasmine comes in two flavors -- plain and fancy. The plain polyanthemum has ordinary, dark-green leaves; there also is one named ‘Variegatum,’ which has leaves edged in cream. Some new leaves are completely cream colored -- they are devoid of chlorophyll -- and the tips of new stems might be rose-colored, like the buds. With this type, the plant has interest even when it is not smothered in clouds of fragrant blooms.