Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Winter flowering daphnes

Sometime sensitive, sometimes short-lived Gill Heavens says that daphnes with their wonderful scent, foliage and fabulous flowers are worth persevering with.

From Europe to Asia and into northern Africa are found between 50-95 species of daphne, members of the family Thymelaceaceae. Many have fine foliage and fabulous flowers, but this is not the reason many choose to grow them in their gardens. 

For most, the primary purpose for desiring a daphne is to appreciate their incredible, head-swaying scent. 

Amongst the genus there are those that flower in spring and summer, but the few that I will concentrate on here are winter bloomers. These bless us at a time when they are most appreciated by humans and hungry pollinators alike.

This evergreen or deciduous shrub is named after a character from Greek mythology, one that has often been featured in art, literature and opera. Daphne was a naiad, a beautiful nymph, who like many others caught the attention of the irreproachable Apollo. He made chase. Just before he caught her she appealed for help from her father, the river god Ladon, who duly turned her into a laurel tree. I’m not sure how much of a help this was in the end, but I am sure he did his best. The daphne is sometimes known as Laurel Spurge. 

Daphne bholua

One of the most well-known of these winter wonders is Daphne bholua, which is widespread throughout the Eastern Himalyas. It is also known as the Nepalese Paper Plant as the bark is indeed used to make paper. Growing to more than 2m in height, it enjoys a lime free soil. Flowering over a long period, from midwinter into spring, it will grace your garden for several months A fine deciduous cultivar is D. bholua var. glacialis ‘Gerkha’ which was collected in Nepal in 1962. It is red in bud but opens to sparkling white flowers with a heady perfume. It is also very hardy. A seedling from Gerkha has given us the high goddess of daphnes, the wondrous Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. Her large flowers are pinkish purple on the reverse, paler on the front and divinely fragrant. These are followed by black berries. ‘Darjeeling’ has smaller flowers but starts to bloom slightly earlier, from late autumn to late winter. 

Daphne laureola is native to much of Southern and Western Europe, including the UK, and North Africa. It has yellow-green flowers in late winter which of course are fragrant. These are followed by black fruit which are poisonous to all but the birds. It has a tendency to be rather leggy, reaching a lax 1m tall. The matt evergreen leaves are an attractive bonus and it is happy anywhere from sun to full shade. Be careful when Daphne mezereumhandling, as this plant has been known to cause an allergic skin reaction. For a more compact version try the Pyrenean Daphne laureola subsp. philipii. This subspecies is dwarf in stature, only reaching 20cm, and more compact in form. The fragrance is strongest at dusk, irresistibly attracting moths.

Next we have the most fragrant one of all, Daphne odora. This sprawling plant, which comes from China and Japan, was first introduced into this country in 1771. The flowers are pale lilac-pink, darker on the back and appear from late winter into spring followed by reddish purple berries. Due to its relaxed habit it can be trained up a wall or over a bank spreading to 2m. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is a great beauty, with narrow golden margins to its leaves. It is also much hardier than its green parent, who is a little more delicate than some daphnes, but will forgive a little frost. 

Daphne laureolaFinally let me introduce the bizarrely beautiful Daphne mezereum. One of its common names is February Daphne and this is indeed when it begins to flower. Pairs of dark pink or pinkish red blooms are produced tight to the upright leafless branches which are followed by scarlet berries. The effect of this is quite stunning. It enjoys cool conditions, being native to most of Europe including Scandinavia, western Asia and Siberia, and likes a heavy limy soil. There is a white flowered variety called Daphne mezereum f. alba which has amber fruit. ‘Bowles Variety’ has white flowers and white fruit and Daphne mezereum ‘Rosea’ has large rose pink flowers. 

Some daphnes can be rather sensitive. 

They dislike root disturbance, so shouldn’t be moved once established, and would prefer minimal pruning. They don’t like to be too wet in winter or too dry in summer. What they do like is good drainage and constant moisture levels. 

In fact what they desire is the Utopia of soil conditions, “moist but well-drained”! Give them protection from cold winds and, although they will tolerate some shade, they will flower better with a little sun. In spite of their wonderful scent do not be fooled into thinking all is palatable, the whole plant is extremely toxic. 

Daphnes can be short-lived, dying seemingly on a whim, some however may last for decades. However once you have experienced the swooning scent I am sure you will agree it is worth the lottery. When planting remember they are at their best in the depths of winter. At this time of year you might be less inclined to venture too far from the warmth. Site them close to the house, where their incredible scent will bring a smile to your face on the bleakest of days. 

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