Variations on an aromatic treasure
BY RACHEL FOSTER
On mild days in early spring, you catch the sweet scent of daphne all over town. Winter daphne (Daphne odora) is a wildly popular shrub where it is hardy, and that includes protected spots in Western Oregon. When the purple flower buds open at last to reveal pale interiors, the fragrance can be so intense that some people (myself included) find it a bit overwhelming at close quarters. The evergreen leaves are shiny and relatively large, and in the form most often encountered they have narrow yellow margins. A variety with pure white flowers and plain green leaves occasionally shows up.
This winter was hard on Daphne odora, providing a very visible lesson in where it prefers to grow. Specimens exposed to wind and sun turned yellow and dropped many leaves whereas those up against a north wall or shaded by evergreens were mostly in tip-top condition. It may be that the larger a daphne’s leaf, the more shade it prefers and tolerates. The rhododendron garden at Hendricks Park boasts Daphne bholua, an unusual, upright species that has leaves even bigger than winter daphne’s. Judging by the abundant January bloom, it is perfectly happy in its rather sunless spot.
While winter daphne remains a favorite, in recent years it has become easier to find a variety of daphnes with different blooming times and greater resistance to cold. Compact, evergreen shrubs with fragrant flowers sound like a sure hit, so why did it take so long? Many species of daphne will flourish in sun as well as in bright indirect light. Just don’t bother to plant any daphne in a windy or waterlogged location, and remember that more daphnes are killed by over-watering in summer than any other factor. In my experience, dry conditions in summer and overall good drainage are more important then the soil type, although according to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, winter daphne prefers a neutral soil to an acid one.
Garland daphne (Daphne cneorum) is adorable, with tiny leaves and sweetly scented, deep pink flowers in spring. It is less than a foot high but considerably wider. This is really a rock plant, so plant it above a retaining wall with drainage holes or on a gritty berm. Daphnes have a reputation for being short lived, and this one is especially prone to sudden daphne death. Be stingy with the summer water, and enjoy it while it lasts.
Other daphnes are noticeably more resilient. One of my favorites, Daphne tangutica, is one tough daphne that blooms from late spring onward. I have three specimens, none in good soil, and two of them (one in sun, one in indirect light) receive almost no water in summer, though I sometimes set a leaky gallon jug of water on the roots of the one in the sun. This species grows three or four feet high and is notable for bearing fragrant flowers and red fruit simultaneously through late summer and fall. Very dark green leaves are about an inch long. D. retusa is similar but more compact.
Deciduous daphnes have their own kind of charm. February daphne (Daphne mezereum) is an upright grower with large, pale green leaves. Deep red-purple (or creamy white) flowers smother the stems before the foliage appears. (They are followed by berries that are reputedly poisonous.) Sun-loving D. caucasica has small gray-green leaves and tiny pinky white flowers and is almost never out of bloom. Lilac daphne (D. gengkwa), outstanding for the sheer beauty of its generous April bloom, is virtually scentless. You can’t have it all.
Daphne x burkwoodii (a semi-deciduous cross between cneorum and caucasica) makes a compact cushion about two feet high and slightly wider. ‘Carol Mackie’ is a pretty, variegated form that seems to be easy to grow. Other, newer, variegated daphnes, though more spectacular, can be decidedly touchy.
I think all daphnes tolerate pruning so long as it is little and often and done in spring and early summer when the plant is in active growth. On the other hand, daphnes do not appreciate you messing with their roots, and attempts to transplant large, established specimens are rarely successful. D. tangutica grows easily from seed; most others must be propagated from cuttings.
Well-grown nursery specimens can be expensive, so it may be worth seeking out small ones. Community plant sales are a likely venue. Coming up in Eugene in April and May are: Destination Imagination Plant Sale, Saturday April 19; The Hardy Plant Group Spring Plant Sale, Saturday May 10; and The Oregon Plant Fair, also May 10.ew
Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org