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Plant Life
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With its gorgeous glossy leaves and deeply fragrant flowers in spring, Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' is definitely worth the trouble of pampering.
Demanding Daphnes
Yes, they're finicky, but your attentions will be richly rewarded

DAPHNES ARE TEMPERAMENTAL, so don't take it personally if you have one that dies for no apparent reason. I've had daphnes die suddenly, and I've had others that soldier on through cold and snow or really dry summers, hanging onto every leaf and blooming gloriously. In Greek mythology, Daphne was a nymph who transformed into a plant to escape Apollo's unwanted advances; hence a long tradition of elusiveness. There's no point in holding their inconsistency against them any more than you blame a cat for hunting birds. Daphnes simply have a capricious nature, and if you face up to the fact they may not be long-lived and there isn't much you can do about it, you can relax and enjoy their incomparable combination of star-like flower and sumptuous scent.

If you're able to coax daphnes through their first season, you have a better chance of keeping them for years. Their No. 1 requirement is free-draining soil, so rock gardens and raised beds are good choices. They resent transplanting and prefer more sun than shade, although this varies among species. Summer irrigation is a must, for while daphnes resent wet feet they also don't like to dry out — although the less water the better for next spring's bloom, so you don't want to overwater, either. Is that confusing enough?
Illustration Now In Bloom
If you need to choose just one lilac, you wouldn't be disappointed with the exquisitely showy Syringa vulgaris 'Sensation,' which has purple flowers, each perfectly outlined in white. If you have space for a couple more colors, 'Ellen Wilmott' is one of the best whites, with large, double, fragrant, snowy flowers; 'President Lincoln' is the bluest lilac, and 'Primrose' has flowers of pale yellow. Lilacs like well-drained soil, full sun and regular mulching. They look best if deadheaded after blooming.
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If it makes you feel any better, the "Sunset Western Garden Book" says daphnes are even more difficult to grow in California than they are here, so maybe that's slightly encouraging. They need little pruning but put up with branches being cut to force into bloom indoors and brighten a bleak winter morning.

One daphne that clearly deserves garden space despite its finicky ways is Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata.' It has all the virtues one might hope for in a shrub: thick, glossy evergreen leaves edged in warm cream and deliciously scented little white or rosy-pink flowers in spring. A walkway at University Village is lined with tall terra-cotta pots planted with fat 'Aureomarginatas,' and I joined a near parade of shoppers one particularly gloomy day in late February, walking slowly past and soaking up the jasmine-like perfume. Now I want to go out and get a nice big pot to keep by my front door, filled with one of these daphnes held up to nose level.

Another variegated daphne blooms a little later and is a little less tricky. Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie' has clusters of sweet-smelling flowers that open pale-pink and fade to white against gold-trimmed leaves. D. x burkwoodii 'Brigg's Moonlight' is an especially striking cultivar — one I've unfortunately finished off. Still pretty expensive because it's quite new, it is a compact plant with ethereal foliage, so variegated as to appear mostly pale, shimmery yellow. I've never seen it bloom, having killed it off too early in the season, twice.

The lilac daphne (D. genkwa) is one of my favorites, even though it's devoid of scent. An airy little shrub, it shows off narrow lavender flowers for the entire month of May. Maybe I just like it because it flourishes in my garden, a lively companion to the hot orange Euphorbia grifithii 'Fireglow' and yellow wallflowers that bloom with it.

There are little daphnes you can squeeze into crowded gardens, like the unpronounceable D. blagayana with creamy-white, lavishly scented flowers on a near-prostrate bush that spreads along the ground. (I've killed this one, too.)

Tougher and better candidates for success are Daphne tangutica and D. retusa, both from China. Similar in appearance, they have dark-green, year-round foliage and bloom through the summer with fragrant white and purple flowers followed by large, scarlet, poisonous fruit. Both need full sun, and, like all the other daphnes, insist on sharp drainage. Despite the poison fruit and the prima-donna attitude, I'm always on the scout for new and more daphnes — a sucker for the siren song that beguiled Apollo so many centuries ago.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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