RECOMMENDED SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
This hardy, deciduous shrub is the best known in old gardens, frequently spreading over the landscape, thanks to seeds dropped by birds, which relish the fruit. When young, it is a distinctly upright shrub, but it broadens as it matures, and new growth becomes shorter and more twiggy. In early spring, it can be spectacular, but the colour of the blooms varies from deep to dingy pink, so it is best bought in flower, when the actual shade of pink can be seen.
Healthy plants have flowers crowded along the new shoots, and any plants that show yellow streaking of the foliage should be avoided, as this may indicate a virus. D. mezereum grows best in full sun or part shade, although the plant can be short-lived.
The berries are bright and translucent, but their poisonous nature means this may not be an appropriate choice for gardens where children and dogs are present.
No daphnes need pruning, and this one can be resentful of over-zealous trimming, so it is best not to give in to temptation to cut stems for indoor decoration.
The white-flowered D. mezereum f. alba has yellow fruits, and seedlings breed true if grown in isolation. ‘Bowles’s Variety’ is superior, but rare, and was raised from ‘Paul’s White’ from the eponymous family nursery in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire.
Native of the Himalayas and collected, for introduction to cultivation, from Nepal, this species is usually seen as the cultivar ‘Jacqueline Postill’. One of the finest of all winter-flowering shrubs, this was raised by Alan Postill as a seedling of the semi-evergreen ‘Gurkha’, and named after his wife. It is an evergreen, with dark green, semi-lustrous leaves, and the pale pink blooms open from dark pink buds. Flowering usually starts in January and continues for at least two months. Like the other early-flowering daphnes, the open blooms are not damaged by frost. Although it can reach 10ft (3m) in the wild, 6ft 6in (2m) is more common in cultivation, and it forms an upright shrub.
Pruning is not advised, but this species will tolerate the ‘harvesting’ of a few sprigs to bring indoors, if desired. Growth is moderately fast, but after 10 years, the plants are prone to dying back; sometimes quite suddenly.
This small, and rather subtle, native is happy in quite deep shade. It usually only reaches 2ft (60cm) in height and has shiny, dark green leaves. In spring, it produces small clusters of lime-green flowers at the top of the stems that contrast with the foliage. The flowers are sometimes fragrant and are followed by black berries.
This rather ungainly, evergreen shrub was introduced to the UK from Japan in 1771, making it one of the best-known daphnes. It is still regarded as slightly tender and is often planted against the protection of a sunny wall. The form with yellow-edged leaves, called ‘Aureomarginata’, is said to be more cold-tolerant. Although grown primarily for the fragrant flowers, a number of new cultivars have been recently introduced, including ‘Banana Split’ and ‘Mae-jima’, which have boldly striped, bright yellow and green leaves. In all, the pink buds open to palest pink or white flowers, with a sweet, citrus fragrance. As the shrubs grow, they develop a spreading, angular branching and may drop some leaves by flowering time. It is best planted in full sun for maximum flower production, but with some shade for more attractive foliage.
Plants reach approximately 3ft 3in (1m) high and wide when mature, and will tolerate light picking for the home.
Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’
This new variety is a hybrid of Daphne odora and D. bholua, bred by Mark Jury in New Zealand, who is best known for breeding magnolias. It is superficially similar to D. odora, but more vigorous, with blooms of twice the size, produced in bunches among the upper parts of the stems. The soft-pink flowers are sweetly fragrant, filling the air with a delicious scent. It is easier to grow than either parent and attains approximately 31in (80cm) in height and spread. It grows well in sun or part shade and is probably the best daphne for an introduction to the genus because of its beauty and reliability.
‘Perfume Princess White’ is a recent introduction, with pure white flowers.
The bark of some daphnes is used to make paper in their native habitats, and all have flexible branches that can be tied and twisted without breaking.
All daphnes dislike root disturbance, so should only be planted from pots and not as bare root plants or root balls. Bought in pots, they can be planted at any time of year. As these shrubs do not look their best in summer, they will usually be purchased when in bloom, and this is a good time to both choose and plant them. If they have been in pots for too long, they may become pot-bound and develop yellow leaves due to lack of nutrients – particularly so with Daphne odora – and any such plants should be avoided.
These daphnes are hardy in all but the coldest parts of the country. In exposed, cold gardens, D. mezereum is the best choice. All tolerate full sun or partial shade, although flowering will be more prolific in sun. They are tolerant of a wide range of soil pH, but thin, chalk soils will need to be improved with organic matter to ensure growth. The addition of well-rotted manure, compost or leaf mould will lighten heavy soils and improve sandy conditions, but the most important factor with these plants is good drainage: none of them will thrive in poorly drained soils.
If necessary, they can be grown in containers, planted in loam-based, John Innes No. 3 compost. The best choices for container growing, because they are evergreen and make a better feature on the patio, are D. odora and ‘Perfume Princess’. Container growing also allows the flowering plant to be brought into a conservatory when in bloom, where its fragrance can be enjoyed. As with any shrub grown in a container, success is only possible if the plants are constantly tended and watered.
Once established in the garden, daphnes do not need much attention or special feeding. A spring mulch with well-rotted compost is beneficial, and a general fertiliser can be applied at the same time. Pests are not likely to be an issue, although aphids will sometimes attack young shoots. Scale insects may be a problem when Daphne odora is grown against a sunny wall. The most serious disease is a virus which attacks D. mezereum, probably spread by aphids, in which affected plants develop narrow, yellow-streaked leaves and lose vigour. Plants grown from seed are generally free from the disease.
Daphnes are invaluable for the winter and early spring garden. While they have a reputation for being tricky, the winter-flowering kinds are generally easy and reliable. Their flowers are colourful and showy, and their fragrance alone makes daphnes worth planting. With their sweet and wafting scent, no other shrubs will reward the gardener more.