Plants to Love: Fragrant Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia)

by Genevieve on July 14, 2010

Sarcococca ruscifolia

This unassuming little shade shrub is one that people often don’t notice at first. There’s nothing particularly showy about its graceful arching stems, deep green leaves, or the tiny white flowers that hang from its branches in winter.

But when those small blooms open, people walk around sniffing all the big, showy flowers in the area, wondering where that glorious fragrance is coming from! After the flowers, Fragrant Sweet Box begins creating pretty little red berries which hang prettily off each stem. The red berries soon turn to black, and the shrub creates a gentle show for months on end.

Fragrant Sweet Box is deer resistant, evergreen, gets about 3-6’ tall in time (a lot of time, she’s a slow grower!), and is one of the few plants that will tolerate deep, dark shade. She doesn’t mind a bit of pruning to keep her to size, and all she asks for is reasonably good drainage in winter (what lady likes having soggy feet?) and a bit of summer water. She thrives in USDA Zones 7-9.

I think Sarcococca is the epitome of grace. She’s always beautiful and has many fine qualities, yet doesn’t thrust herself into the limelight and is above the gaudy displays and fripperies many plants put on to get attention. Really, how many plants bloom in winter? And are fragrant then? And will take the darkest of shade with nary a wishful stretch into the light? Her simple beauty makes all the other plants look good by association.

Grab one for that shady corner where nothing seems to work. She will gently espalier herself against a wall or form a neatly arching shrub, provide some winter fragrance, and get you through the doldrums of very early spring with her cheerful berries.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Jayme July 14, 2010 at 7:25 am

I love Sarcococca! What a simple, beautiful, fragrant evergreen plant. I just replaced my gargantuan viburnums in my foundation beds with Sarcococca. I love the size, glossy leaves, upright growth habit…everything. I have them planted with curly sedge, huckleberry, euphorbia, a huge tree peony and some other things.

I love the idea of this series. I’ll be back!

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Stevie July 14, 2010 at 8:57 am

I particularly love these in the winter when they are in bloom and nothing else is as fragrant.

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rebecca sweet July 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Sarcococca. Just saying it makes me smile. You and I are SO similar – this, too, is right up there with my top 5 favorite plants!! I always try and plant it near shady doorways so folks can smell it in the late winter when they go in and out of their homes. I have one by my own front door and every year the mailman just loves smelling it – sometimes I even clip a branch of it for him to carry around in his truck that day….

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Cindy Graebner July 14, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Well maybe I better get my face out of the roses and check this Sarococca out..cool word besides…sounds lovely. I think grace is one of the qualities I love most in a plant

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Genevieve July 15, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Aww, so glad to see my beloved Sarcococca getting some love!!

Jayme, oh my goodness, lovely planting companion ideas! And Stevie, I so agree on that fragrance. Rebecca, I am so glad to be your plant-love twin!! Your article on Francoa made my heart sing. Cindy, I think they’d go lovely with those gorgeous Fuchsias you carry in the nursery…

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Debbie July 16, 2010 at 7:29 am

Gen,

I’m looking forward to following along with this series but I am disappointed the first shrub is not hardy for me. Here in southwestern CT (zone 6), our available sweetbox is S. hookeriana, the groundcover sweetbox. While I’ve never used it for a client, and don’t have any in my own garden, I may have to seek it out since it’s more fragile cousin, S. ruscifolia, definitely sounds interesting.

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Barbara April 9, 2013 at 5:10 pm

I too love the sweet box. Mine are yellowing even though I’ve given them Holly Tone. Maybe they need something else. Anybody……suggestions???

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Genevieve April 26, 2013 at 8:16 am

I have only had yellowing under a few conditions:

not enough nitrogen
not enough iron
too much sun
not enough water

Hope that helps! It’s hard to diagnose without being on site.

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Harriet July 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm

How close to the fence should I plant it, to have it climb up the fence.
Please respond via my email address.

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saira mathew July 12, 2013 at 11:36 pm

I was considering planting it along the length of the house in a shaded alley way. I love the smell of this plant in the Winter months. However, I am concerned it will grow up the walls of the house, as opposed to just lining the base as a low shrub. How far away from the house walls should I plant a row of these plants?

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Genevieve July 13, 2013 at 7:20 am

It’s not a vine, so no worries about it invading the siding or anything. Maybe plant 2-4′ away depending on your tolerance for pruning?

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Keith July 13, 2013 at 8:09 am

Also note that this is the easiest plant to root from cuttings I have ever seen. We were moving so I took cuttings even though the plant was fairly small, just over a foot. Every one grew with no rooting hormone or special care, I just put it in a pot of decent, not great, soil. If you find the right balance between sun and shade they don’t grow that slowly. I had mine turn yellow when I gave it too much sun.

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Terri September 18, 2013 at 8:20 pm

I noticed my sarcoccoca looking a little worse for wear (thinning foliage, reduced blooming) and decided to give it a manure tea bath. That seemed to do the trick, so I think the problem was a lack of nitrogen plus the fact that sarcococca requires a little bit of real winter to be in her prime and the preceding winter was extremely mild. It has perked up amazingly and filled in. I`m looking forward to a great winter fragrance fest! When the wind & weather are right the fragrance actually travels right around the house. The S. ruscifolia is in the front bed to the back of the stairs and against the wall, the smell is that strong and pervasive.

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Kate April 27, 2014 at 4:06 am

H? Terri,
Read your comments with interest. I have 2 variegated S.Ruscifolias , 5 ft. in height, bought last year, but now this Spring they are covered with a strange white ‘waxy’ film especially the new growth. They have been fed with a general mineral plant food and the old growth is better looking now but not so the newer growth at the top.

I now live in Istanbul suburbs so don’t know much about the soil around here, though I’m told it is good. I’m having a hard time getting all the nutrients needed for my garden so I’ll start with the tea! Hope you can help me.

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ms. Jeremy Moen March 27, 2014 at 11:20 pm

I have one of these beautiful little shrubs in my front yard with plenty of shade and plenty of drainage, and she seems to be a very happy little plant. However I have not seen anybody ask about the berries! They seem to be edible! Everything I have read on the internet implies or indicates or, have outright said that they are edible… I very cautiously tasted one with the tip of my tongue and it did not taste bitter indicating typically a poisonous berry. Can anyone confirm conclusively that this plant with these awesome little berries are or are not poisonous?

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Carol Johnson July 12, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Anyone tried Sarcococca as a patio plant? I bought one for that purpose and wonder how it will winter?

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