Edgeworthia chrysantha, the paperbush, seems to be making the transition from rare collectors’ item to a garden staple that can regularly be found in garden centers. That’s all to the good, because it is a wonderful plant for piedmont gardens. It is one of the four best shrubs to grow for winter fragrance–the others being Osmanthus fragrans (tea olive), Lonicera fragrantissima (winter honeysuckle), and Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet)–and for architectural interest, it beats those other three species hollow.
Edgeworthia forms a perfect dome of thick, flexible branches that are covered with large green leaves in summer. The leaves drop after the first freeze, around the time that the fuzzy flower buds begin to swell, so by late December the bare branches appear to be tipped by silvery Christmas ornaments. The flowers open from mid February to mid March in central North Carolina and fill the garden with their fragrance. Currently both Edgeworthia and Lonicera fragrantissima are blooming in my garden. The Edgeworthia fragrance seems sweeter, and the Lonicera more lemony, but both are wonderful. If we don’t have a hard freeze in the next ten days they should be joined by the apricot fragrance of Osmanthus fragrans. My Chimonanthus is still too small to bloom, but in a few years February should smell amazing.
Edgeworthia seems to grow reasonably well in dry shade, but my best specimen grows where it receives rainwater channeled from the end of the driveway and is exposed to direct sun until mid afternoon.
Some websites suggest that Edgeworthia buds can be destroyed by temperatures in the low teens (Fahrenheit), but my plants of the common yellow-flowered variety have tolerated low single-digits with no damage to either buds or branch tips. The orange-flowered form does seem to be more cold sensitive. A small specimen that I planted was frozen to the ground several years in a row and failed to come back last spring.
The common name, paperbush, apparently comes from its use as a source of fiber for Chinese and Japanese paper, although I can’t imagine how anyone could bear to grind up an Edgeworthia for anything so mundane as paper pulp.