I have always had a slight fear of daphnes, stoked by traditional writings about their cussedness. They have a reputation for being capricious at best but I don’t think this is wholly deserved. I think it is based largely on Daphne mezereum, commonly, but oddly known as the mezereon. It is a native of Europe, including the British Isles. I remember it arriving at the Garden centre where I worked in my teens, rootballed on the annual delivery from The Netherlands. It was frequently virused which may have led to its frequent, sudden death and it also follows its masses of fragrant pink spring flowers with masses of red (poisonous) berries which may exhaust the plant. It also dislikes pruning. It seems to need full sun but will not withstand severe drought and can be tricky to find the perfect place for it. I remember it growing in a garden near me when we lived in Surrey where it seeded profusely on thick clay over chalk. The plants may not have been long lived but regenerated from seeds which are greedily eaten by birds.
There is a white form that produces glorious, translucent, yellow berries. The flowering effect of both is enhanced by it being deciduous.
The first daphne I grew was Daphne odora, the evergreen, slightly tender species, reputedly more hardy in the common, slightly variegated form. Rather than upright, it is rather lax and benefits from planting by a wall for protection and to help it gain some height. The white flowers, opening from pink buds, have the most delicious fragrance of the year, sweet and lemony and it does not have a hissy fit if you cut a few sprigs to bring into the house. The flowers are carried in small bunches at the ends of the previous season’s growth. There are now amazing variegated forms usually with appropriately amazing prices.
The most fashionable daphne is D. bholua, from the Himalaya. It is almost totally represented by ‘Jacqueline Postill’. It is a recent plant. In 1962 Major Spring Smyth collected three seedlings of D. bholua found growing at 3,000m on the Milke Banjyang ridge in Nepal which experiences severe winter weather. These plants were deciduous and one was named ‘Ghurkha’. Alan Postill grew some seeds of this and named a semi-evergreen seedling after his wife and so we have ‘Jacqueline Postill’. This fabulous plant is hardy and reaches 2m high and about 1m across and is studded with pink flowers that open from January to March. My last plant was a joy for many years, planted beside the garage door where it cheered me up for three months of the year but then decided to die when about ten years old.
The new kid on the block is ‘Perfume Princess’. She is a Kiwi, raised by the famous magnolia breeder Mark Jury. Apparently, in 1996 he visited Robin White in the UK who raised the daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’ as well as world class hellebores and was inspired to dabble with daphnes. He crossed D. odora with D. bholua and although the plants were reluctant to set seeds, some seedlings were raised but largely ignored until he realised the potential of the plant. It is a truly lovely plant, rather like a Daphne odora on steroids. The flowers are possibly the largest of any daphne and it flowers for longer than either parent, but still has a lovely perfume. Most notably, it flowers like crazy, with flowers all down the stems. I have it planted in shade and it is deep green and is flowering well after just a year. Apologies for the awful photo – it has been windy! I suspect it will be rather rounded as it matures, as wide as it is high.
Nearby is another daphne but this one is native. Daphne laureola is a small, evergreen shrub that is the polar opposite of ‘Perfume Princess’ with subtle flowers and no scent. I first saw it growing on the North Downs in a Beech hanger in dense summer shade and surviving on thin chalky soil. It does not need chalk but it is best in shade. It makes a small, dense, evergreen shrub with flexible stems and glossy, dark green leaves.
The common name is spurge laurel which is confusing since it is neither a spurge nor a laurel. In spring the green buds open to greenish or lemony flowers that are supposed to be fragrant – at times. I have never detected any fragrance and as getting down to ground level, and up again, gets more difficult, I doubt I ever will! Never-the-less I admire this demure shrub for its quiet charm.