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How to Grow Himalayan Sweetbox

Himalayan sweetbox is an evergreen, shade-loving shrub that produces small winter-blooming flowers with an aromatic fragrance.

how to grow himalayan sweetbox

Himalayan sweetbox shrubs spread slowly from rhizomes, covering the landscape with glossy, leathery foliage. In late winter, the small, inconspicuous but fragrant white flowers bloom, giving the plant its name.

Following the flowers, black or red berries appear and linger through the summer and fall. The berries are not toxic but also not tasty for human consumption. However, many species of birds love eating them.

Himalayan sweetbox red berries

Himalayan sweetbox can thrive in deep shade and areas that get a few hours of sun. It slowly grows to about two feet, although some varieties get taller. It is moderately drought-tolerant and relatively low maintenance, although a bit of fertilizer each year can keep the leaves nice and shiny and promote lots of sweet-smelling flowers.

I planted a small grouping of Himalayan sweetbox a few years ago to soften the concrete corners of our front porch. This space doesn't get much sun, especially in winter, and I wanted something that would stay green all year. I'm constantly amazed at how those tiny little flowers can create such a powerful fragrance!

Himalayan sweetbox softens the edges of these concrete steps

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Himalayan Sweetbox Varieties

There are several species of sweet box with slightly different growth habits, flowering times, and mature size.

Sarcococca hookeriana humilis

This is the most common form, which is known as Himalayan Sweetbox. This species forms dense, low mats of ground cover that typically reach about two feet high, with individual plants spreading two to three feet in diameter. Himalayan sweetbox has slightly less fragrant flowers than the other types.

Himalayan sweet box leaves and buds

Sarcococca ruscifolia

This species is also called sweet box, but the berries are red instead of black. It is also commonly referred to as fragrant sweet box, because the scent is stronger than other varieties. The overall size is also a bit bigger, reaching up to five feet high and wide.   

Sarcococca confuse 

This plant is commonly called Christmas sweet box. This species has flowers that bloom in January, making it one of the earliest flowers of the season. The blossoms give off an intense and delightful fragrance that fills the winter air wherever this plant grows.

Sarcococca confuse (Christmas sweet box) flowers

This species of sweet box also has red berries that attract flocks of songbirds to the garden in summer. It typically grows to about three feet high, but you can prune it to keep it smaller. 

When to Plant Himalayan Sweetbox

The best time to transplant sweet box plants is in fall and spring when there is no danger of frost and moderate temperatures. 

Where to Plant Himalayan Sweetbox

Sweetbox plants do not like cold, strong wind or waterlogged soil, so choose a site with good drainage and wind protection. However, this plant is cold hardy, withstanding temperatures down to -10°F. 

Too much sun exposure is likely to result in yellowing leaves, so the optimum planting location is in full or partial shade. In addition, Himalayan sweetbox prefers fertile, slightly acidic soil that drains quickly. If the soil is not acidic enough, the leaves are likely to be a less attractive light green color.

Himalayan sweet box yellowing leaves

You can plant Himalayan sweetbox as a border, a hedge, or on a slope for erosion control. You can also use it as a sprawling groundcover under tall trees, as long as it’s in the shade most of the day and the soil drains quickly. It's deer resistant, so it’s also perfect for woodlands and naturalized areas.

How to Propagate Sweet Box

You can buy potted sweetbox plants at a garden center, nursery, or online. But you can also propagate it from semi-hardwood cuttings if you have access to an established plant.

Here's how to propagate sweet box from cuttings:

  • Cut a 6 to 8-inch piece of woody stem with a green tip but without flowers from a healthy plant in late spring or early summer. 
  • Strip the leaves from the bottom half of the stem and dip it into rooting hormone, mixed per the manufacturer’s directions.
  • Put the bottom of the cutting in a pot with drainage holes in a mixture of moist perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss.
  • Cover the container with transparent plastic, store it in a shady place, and mist the upper part of the stem daily. 
  • When the cutting develops a healthy root system, transplant it into the garden. 

How to Plant Himalayan Sweetbox

To plant sweet box for groundcover, dig holes for individual plants at least three feet apart, depending on the mature size of the variety you are growing. If you want to grow sweet box as a hedge, space plants about a foot apart. 

After placing the plants into the ground and backfilling, water the area well and apply a hefty layer of nutrient-rich mulch, such as compost or well-rotted manure. When the soil contains plenty of organic matter, the plants need little or no fertilizer each year.

Caring for Himalayan Sweetbox

You can prune sweet box plants in spring after the flowers fade to keep the plants low or to shape them into creative topiary designs. 

Sweetbox plants need occasional water if it does not rain and in scorching weather, particularly if the leaves turn yellow. However, remember that some varieties have leaves that naturally change color in fall. 

If needed, the best time to fertilize the plants is in spring using a fertilizer designed for shrubs like boxwood. Fertilizing can help keep leaves dark green and glossy. 

Want more plants that bloom in winter? Check these out!