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Demystifying Daphnes

1/2/2024 2:24 pm



 Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'


Daphnes bear a reputation for being difficult. Is that reputation fair? Does it even matter if you can enjoy the fragrance and bloom of these delights in the dead of winter or early spring? Let's dive into Daphnes. Maybe when you are done reading, you'll dive in and try one for the first, second or even third time! 


First, however, let's get the "bad rap" part out of the way. I've heard all of the following -- more than once:  


"Daphnes just suddenly up and die after a few years."

"Deer love them."

"Daphnes are expensive."

"We don't have the right climate for Daphnes."

"Daphnes are alpine plants."


Let's dissect those assertions.


Do Daphnes just suddenly up and die after a few years? I won't lie and say it never happens. But I will argue that when Daphnes are planted properly, the chances of this happening are greatly reduced. Daphnes despise wet feet. If you can remember that, you have a chance at long term success. Moreover, even if you don't do it right, I would argue that for what a small Daphne costs, you can get more pleasure out of four or five years of a gorgeous blooming Daphne with its fabulous scent in the most inhospitable of gardening seasons -- winter -- than other plants.


Do deer love them? Deer are mercurial creatures. In eighteen years in Tucker, I have never lost a Daphne to deer. That said, I recognize that next year might be different. (Indeed, my mother in Chester County, PA could count on the deer coming along and gnawing her fully-budded Daphne odora to the ground before it bloomed). If you -- like me -- have a deer problem, then my best advice is to prevent the problem by using deer spray every four to six weeks. I like Deer Out, an all natural product that seems to last longer as it has an "oil" base, specifically peppermint oil, which helps cover up the sulphur smell of the rotten eggs that forms the effective part of most deer repellants. 


Are Daphnes expensive? Is $25 to $35 or more for a shrub that will bloom the year you buy it and for years in the future expensive?  Compared to what? You might buy flats of annuals that cost that every year, but trust me, no pansy, impatiens, or geranium will ever give you the delight of a blooming Daphne. So if you get four to five years of pleasure from a Daphne, it is well worth it. Do it right and you might get many more years from it.  Besides, let's acknowledge that all plants have a life span. Perennials like Agastache don't come cheaply, but rarely give a decent second year let alone a third in our neck of the woods.


Do we have the right climate for Daphnes? Certainly there are some that prefer more alpine temperatures. Some of the dwarf ones are the hardest to grow and are best left to experts (and rock gardeners who understand the true meaning of "well-drained"). That said, there are excellent options for North Georgia.


Now on to what Daphnes to plant!


Winter Bloomers


The queen of Daphnes in our area is Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'. This evergreen Daphne has medium to dark green leaves rimmed with white. Deep pink flower buds open in January to reveal a creamy white interior that blends well with the leaf margins. The fragrance resembles 'Froot Loops' a bit, heady and very sweet but not cloying. A white flowered form is also available (Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata Alba') as are both pink and white flowered forms without a leaf margin (Daphne odora). These grow best in shade to light shade.



 Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' 


Another beauty that matches this one for scent is Daphne odora 'Mae Jima'. This variegated Daphne also has thick striking yellow margins with pink flowers. I'll admit that I don't really adore the color combo of the flower and leaves, but the flowers only persist so long leaving behind delightful foliage the rest of the year to brighten a shady area. 


Daphne odora 'Mae Jima'



A Spring Bloomer


If you like me have never been satisfied long term with any of the lilacs that grow in metro-Atlanta, you would be delighted to grow Daphne genkwa. This is a sun loving Daphne, widely used throughout Asia for medicinal properties. Fragrant, loaded with lavender-pink blooms going up the stem, D. genkwa is an all time favorite for me. Sadly, mine did die after a few years. That death, however, was entirely due to a badly formed containerized root ball. Although I generally root wash all my shrubs and trees, I hadn't adopted that practice quite religiously when I planted this. When I dug up what was left and found a Gordian knot, I couldn't have been more disappointed at my failure to try to correct the roots before planting the young containerized shrub (assuming had it been possible). 


Daphne genkwa


The challenge of this beauty is to find it. It is not widely distributed and definitely is a mail order only plant in our area. I will hunt for this as long as it takes!  



A Multi-Season Bloomer


A "no-fail" Daphne is Daphne transatlantica 'BLAFRA', also sold as 'Eternal Fragrance'. With medium green leaves, evergreen Eternal Fragrance blooms off and on all year in metro-Atlanta. I find it wants to sprawl more than D. odora (which holds a tight rounded shape). Still, it smells lovely, even if it benefits from occasional pruning. 



Daphne transatlantica 'BLAFRA' or 'Eternal Fragrance'



How to grow Daphnes?


All Daphnes should be planted in well draining locations. Wet roots are the enemy. In typical years, North Georgia receives a lot of rain and often a lot all at once. So special care in planting is key to success with Daphnes.


Daphnes do very well for me on slopes. Any trouble I've had with Daphnes has been in flat areas where it is hard to control moisture. Daphnes should do fine in a container that contains a good amount of Permatill, turkey grit, or other sharp drainage stones throughout. Just pick the right size container the first time -- because Daphnes don't always respond well to transplanting.  The roots are deep, so your container should be tall as well as wide enough to accommodate the width of a full grown plant. 


Rock gardeners in cooler climates often succeed in growing smaller Daphnes by mounding upward, using soil-less or low-volume soil substrates containing sharp rocks, sand etc. between larger stones. This may be an option for those who live on flatter properties. Plant Delights/Juniper Level Botanic Garden reports good success at growing the smaller Daphnes in their rock garden crafted from recycled concrete. Link here to see some specialty Daphnes in blooming in their sunny rock garden in December: Juniper Level Rock Garden Daphnes. Apparently, they are a favorite of Black Swallowtails.


As to light requirements, they vary. Daphne odora does best in part shade. Other Daphnes thrive in light shade, like D. genkwa and D. transatlantica 'BLAFRA'.  Some of the smaller Daphnes like D. caucasus will do fine in full sun, but probably do better with some protection this far south.


Making more Daphnes


Daphnes are surprisingly easy to start from cuttings. When a section of an existing D. odora aureomarginata snapped after a tree branch fell, I dipped some six inch cuttings in root hormone and stuck them directly into the ground where I had river rocks mounded two to three inches above the soil. Low and behold, all the cuttings survived and are budding now. They grow to blooming size within two or three years, so that is an incentive to try a cutting. 


I highly encourage you to ignore the "bad rap" that Daphnes get and try one. The JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina has a wonderful collection of larger Daphnes worth seeing for inspiration. 


Contributed by Liane Schleifer