WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RICHIE STEFFEN
Sweet For All Seasons
Drink in the steady, heady fullness of fragrant daphnes
Daphne x transatlantica 'Summer Ice' is one of the longest-blooming of all these sweetly-scented shrubs, bringing crisp white variegation as well as the scent of jasmine to the garden much of the year.
PERHAPS ALONG WITH viburnums, daphnes are one of those very few plants that could nearly furnish a garden all by themselves. These small to mid-sized shrubs, often evergreen and supremely fragrant, are so pretty in both leaf and flower that you're tempted to plant them in every bed, border and container.
Daphnes may have been named after the Greek nymph Daphne, but more likely the name comes from an Indo-European word meaning "odor." The root and bark used to be used in medicine for toothaches, skin diseases and even cancer, which is odd because all parts of the daphne are poisonous.
I became freshly enamored of daphnes last spring when I tracked down Daphne x transatlantica 'Summer Ice.' This mounded shrub with crisp white trim blooms pretty much year 'round — its fragrant little white flowers only quit when hit by the hard freeze in early January. 'Summer Ice' is one of the few plants I moved to my new garden, and it settled in comfortably despite the stress of being transplanted on one of the hottest days of the summer.
That's especially gratifying because daphnes earn their reputation for fussiness. I've had a Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata,' surely one of the easiest to grow, keel over suddenly right in the midst of spring bloom. "That's an ungrateful daphne for you," said a friend who happened by while I was digging up the corpse. If any of you have successfully grown the seriously variegated and nearly irresistible (meaning I can only resist it now after I've killed it several times) Daphne x burkwoodii 'Briggs Moonlight,' please send instructions. The leaves of this little beauty are reversely variegated, meaning the centers are creamy yellow edged with green, topped off with fragrant pink flowers. The foliage is supposed to be semi-evergreen, but it hasn't lived long enough in my garden to verify that. Wayside Gardens advertises 'Briggs Moonlight' as one of its 10 top-sellers; I'd be interested to know how many times they've sold it again to the same person.
But that's how it is with daphnes. They're such rewarding plants we forgive them their occasional untimely deaths. Here's the trick: Daphnes are moderates that dislike extremes of wet or dry. While most are perfectly hardy, daphne root systems are picky about moisture and prefer not to sit in water nor to dry out. If you can find a spot with moist but well-drained soil, provide some protection from hot summer sun (particularly for the variegated ones), your daphnes should flourish. Prune lightly, for daphnes resent being cut back hard, and mulching with gravel is a good idea because they dislike their roots heating up.
When you do find just the right spot for these queen bees, daphnes flourish with little care and much bloom for many years.
Daphnes begin the show in mid-winter, when the deciduous, upright Daphne mezereum bursts into deeply purple, fragrant flower to form a perfect backdrop to early yellow narcissus. It comes in an ethereal white, too, called 'Bowles Variety,' which has equally frost-proof flowers and grows about 6 feet high. Another of the earliest bloomers is Daphne bholua, called the paper daphne because its handsome bark was used for rope and paper in the Himalayas. D. bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' has the pinkest flowers; all kinds are especially fragrant, as are so many winter plants that compete for the few pollinators available this time of year.
Then there's the best known of the daphnes that bloom in earliest springtime, the evergreen Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' that hails from China and Japan. It's a low-growing, yellow-trimmed, deliciously sweet-smelling, pink-flowered shrub — and may you have more luck with it than I.
Daphne genkwa is the only daphne I know without fragrance, but it's a graceful little shrub with lovely, large lilac flowers the whole month of May. Then in summer, the vigorous Daphne tangutica, its smaller cousin D. retusa, and D. x burkwoodii 'Somerset' and 'Summer Ice' come into their full, fragrant glory. The flowers of these summer daphnes persist through autumn nearly until the winter-bloomers again pick up the daphne parade early in the year.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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