A trio of daphnes

Daphnes are attractive additions to the garden and well worth the effort to make them happy and their beauty almost offsets the constant worry over whether they will be happy. There is a daphne for most months of the year and for most areas of the garden too but I really appreciate the winter/spring-flowering kinds. To my nose these have the best fragrance. I will skip past the remarkable ‘Eternal Fragrance’ because it just doesn’t make my heart race. It is a remarkable achievement in breeding and it is in bloom for at least eight months of the year. It seems easy to grow and is hardy. My plant is speckled with clusters of buds right now. But perhaps it is because it always has (just) a smattering of flowers and they are not very big that I am slightly bored by it. And the scent, which is definitely there, is a bit nondescript. I do not want to criticise any plant that is the result of inspired breeding and hard work to develop, it is a great achievement. But then so are earbuds or whatever those white things are called that people stick in their ears so they can live in a state of constant bombardment by KPop or grunge. Just not for me.

In complete contrast, the winter-flowering daphnes make me quiver with excitement. I have yet to take the plunge with the deciduous D. mezereum in this garden and I rely on the two evergreen ‘common’ species: D. odora and D. bholua. In fact, Daphne odora is a new addition, only planted this week. Rather oddly, the most commonly grown form, which is reputed to be hardier than the green, is ‘Variegata’ with a thin cream line around the leaves. While it is worth growing for the flowers and the sweet, citrus fragrance, the variegation is not worth worrying about.

But recently cultivars with much more striking variegation have appeared and some of these are really special. So, when shopping for an apple tree last week I had to have a look at the daphnes. After all, I had been without D. odora for far too long. I was about to choose an ordinary ‘Variegata’ when I spotted some plants with richly variegated leaves, though I knew they were going to cost more than an impulse buy could justify. Oddly, they were labelled as ‘Variegata’ but they were as striking as some of the other, expensive, plants and even cheaper than the other ‘Variegata’. So I don’t know the name of this but, unusually for me, I don’t care! It is a great-looking plant and it is already in its home in a sunny spot.

Daphne odora generally prefers a sunny, sheltered spot and I have seen it flourishing in dry, sunny beds by house walls but in such a spot it tends to look a bit sparse and angular but does flower freely. A little shade results in a better-looking, leafier plant but with fewer blooms.

The daphne everyone wants is D. bholua, usually represented by ‘Jacqueline Postill’. Just like the lager, it is always reassuringly expensive. When I moved in I was given a young plant (a very welcome gift) that had been dug up and potted, and it took a year to settle down before I planted it out. Daphnes are famous for hating root disturbance and being moved but I think this is over-emphasised, especially for the evergreens, if you are careful – more on that later.

I am sure my plant is ‘Jacqueline Postill’ and it is largely evergreen, but is in a partially shaded spot. I have always found this relatively easy to grow and in a previous life had one that was a joy every winter and spring. It grew to 2m high then, after ten years, died. This is not unexpected with daphnes and just has to be accepted. The joy they provide each year easily makes up for their short life span.

Both these plants are fabulous so a hybrid of the two would surely be just as good. And it turns out that the New Zealand-bred ‘Perfume Princess’ is just that. I have written about this before. To summarise, it is better than the sum of its parts – a lot better!

My current plant has had a tough start in life. It was planted in some really nasty, poorly drained soil (what was I thinking?) and spent two years turning yellow and getting smaller and then I moved it to its present home in a far better spot. Quite a few plants have had to put up with less than perfect conditions as I collected them and the garden has been developed. But not only did it not flinch at the move it actually showed its appreciation by making new growth. Last year it really started to grow and has rewarded me with some good flowers. Although the colouring of the flowers is not that different to the parents they are ‘huge’. Well, they are twice the size of either parent – and they still smell lovely. In addition, the flowers are produced in clusters along the previous year’s extension growth as well as the ends of sideshoots. If you want a daphne I would suggest that this is the one to choose. There is now a white-flowered ‘Princess’ which I have not tried. I am not sure I need it but I might be tempted.

Curiously, bees don’t seem very bothered by any of these daphnes while a happy queen bumblebee has been busily working her way along a row of sarcococca for the past week, enjoying the sweet perfume as much as me.

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3 Comments on “A trio of daphnes”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    February 17, 2023 at 8:00 am #

    Great plants but, as you say, can break your heart when they suddenly up and die.

    • tonytomeo
      February 17, 2023 at 2:55 pm #

      Yes, we used to grow them on the farm, and I loathed them for that. Plenty survived for us, but even at that, those that did not survive were frustrating. Weirdly, those that perform well in landscapes are in the oddest situations in which I would not expect them to be happy. We have a few at work that have grown very well and are presently blooming more splendidly than I would expect them to within their cool situation. Those that get exactly what they should want seem to be the least happy, like a cat that wants the door open, but will not go outside.

      • thebikinggardener
        February 17, 2023 at 3:20 pm #

        I agree that they definitely have a mind of their own. As a child there were some houses down the road where D. mezereum grew almost wild and seeded about. The soil was grey clay over chalk and it was a wonder anything grew in it. It was on that soil that I grew my first daphne – odora, in amended alkaline clay. Daphne laureola grew in the same soil in the beech woods nearby. Perhaps their capriciousness is why I like them – and cats! And yes, ours is always the wrong side of a closed door!

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