Spring means the colour and fragrance of daphnes. They have a reputation for being difficult to grow and some are. They can be evergreen or deciduous and they flower in spring or summer, often with fragrant flowers and sometimes attractive, fleshy berries in red or black. They are all native to Europe, North Africa and Asia with none from America. Daphne laureola (above) is an overlooked species from Europe, including the British Isles, that is evergreen and has slightly hidden, green flowers under the tufts of leaves at the tops of the stems. These are sometimes fragrant but, admittedly, this is not a notably scented species. What makes it useful is that it will grow on chalk and in quite dense shade under trees, though like anything planted in these tough conditions, you need to keep it watered till established. It grows to about 70cm high and can self seed via the seeds in the black berries.
The star at this time of year is the lovely Daphne bholua, (above and below – ‘Alba’) usually seen as the cultivar ‘Jacqueline Postill’, an evergreen even though the species can be almost deciduous. It is an upright, easily grown plant for sun or part shade and flowers for two months in early spring, scenting the air all around.
Daphne berries are mildly poisonous but they are a major reason for growing Daphne mezereum, another native plant. It is deciduous and is upright when young and then spreads with middle age – don’t we all! Like many daphnes, it has clusters of leaves on the shoot tips and can look a bit sparse in summer. But all that is forgiven when the pink flowers open in spring, looking all the better for being on bare stems. They are very fragrant. With luck these are followed by bright scarlet berries in autumn and these are devoured by birds. It grows best in rich, well drained soil in sun or part shade but this is one of the tricky ones that will get off like a rocket in some gardens and unaccountably fail in others. And unlike the evergreens that do not sulk if you cut off a few bits to bring into the house, this one does not like pruning much.
There is a white form (below) which has yellow berries. The problem with these daphnes is that the plants are easily infected with virus and many plants for sale are already full of virus. SO if buying in summer, check for tell-tale yellow streaks in the leaves.
Yellow streaks are not anything to worry about with the new forms of Daphne odora, which are sometimes very expensive but interesting and bright even before the flowers open. It is evergreen and thrives in a warm, sunny spot but is otherwise one of the easiest species apart from the fact that it is not very hardy and really likes a sheltered spot. In my opinion it has the loveliest scent of any daphnes, sweet with a hint of lemon.