The ever popular daphnes

I have never forgotten nursery colleagues of ours saying that they grew daphnes and lemon trees “because pretty well every garden has at least one of each”. In the case of daphnes, it is a continuing market because they need replacing now and again and there is always room for one more.

For most people, daphnes begin and end with odora – the fragrant and delightful shrub in flower now. In fact there are about fifty different species, although the number commercially available in this country is closer to four or five and there are probably a thousand odora selections sold to every one of the others.

You might buy odora under variety of different names – Leucanthe, alba, rubra or Cameo are the current ones most widely available but they are all selections of the one species. The flowers vary in how much and bright the pink is (alba is mostly white, of course) and a little in growth habit and length of flower stem but essentially they are all reasonably compact shrubs which flower in mid winter to early spring and are recognisably “the daphne”. Cameo has been marketed as an apricot toned selection but I think that is a bit optimistic. Mine is a lovely plant and mass flowers but apricot? Not visibly.

Most daphnes like cool, moist, soil with good drainage in the acid to neutral range of Ph. And in case you are wondering, Taranaki being volcanic, is on the acid side. The plants we have in semi shade always look happier than the ones in full sun – the foliage is a richer green. It is a lovely plant to have outside windows and by doors as long as it is not too dry a spot. If you want to keep your plant bushy, pinch out the tips or cut the flowers to take indoors.

There was a lot of talk a decade or two ago about virus free daphnes. Odora is particularly susceptible to virus and the foliage can turn rather yellow and sparse with somewhat stunted growth. If you can get a plant which is guaranteed free of virus, it is probably worth it. And if you have a slightly sick looking plant with dodgy foliage and a curled look, feeding it won’t cure it, although it helps it look better.

Daphne odora comes from China and Japan but the Himalayas have given us bholua which is currently the fashion daphne to plant. Bholua’s flowers are similar to the common odoras and vary from pure white through pink and white combos but its growth habit is very different. It is much more upright with a longer, pointed leaf and can reach a couple of metres quickly. We were most enthusiastic about it as different forms became available several years ago but have since revised our opinion and in fact made a moral decision to stop propagating it commercially. Its weed potential worries us. Expect to see this one on the Regional Council’s banned list in the next decade. Not only does it sucker, but it also sets prolific amounts of seed which the birds spread. It has started appearing throughout the garden in places where it has not been planted. It is not a big enough problem for us to cut all the parent plants out, but I don’t think we would bother collecting any more forms of it unless somebody comes up with a sterile plant which does not set seed.

It is divinely fragrant and a nice plant for the border when it is young, but bholua does not age gracefully. We find the older plants get increasingly scruffy and semi deciduous. Semi deciduous is messy. Totally deciduous means the plant will put on 100% fresh foliage each year, semi deciduous means it hangs on to half its foliage and looks tatty. Unfortunately the flowering time for bholua is also the time when the foliage on older plants looks its worst. And it is inclined to get thrips, the little leaf sucking critters which turn rhododendron leaves silver. Have I put you off this plant?

Burkwoodii is the other commonly available daphne. It is spring flowering and is inclined to be semi deciduous too at this time of the year so can be rather scruffy in winter, but at least when the flowers come, it is putting on fresh foliage so it looks better. Its leaves are also smaller and finer. And it has just the daintiest, prettiest flower imaginable. They are still the same basic form but small, soft pink all over and scented. Each spring when they flower, I forgive the plants their scruffy winter rest time. The fragrance is not as overpowering as the aforementioned two, but it certainly has a scent as pretty as its flowers.

Sometimes you may find Daphne cneorum (a silent “c”, so it is pronounced “neorum”). It is a little gem of a plant, hard to propagate, difficult to establish and slow to grow so not everybody can be bothered. It is a ground cover daphne from Europe with tiny leaves and tiny fragrant flowers in bright pink en masse. Ideally suited to a rockery (but better on the slightly shaded and cooler side of the rockery), or a raised bed, if you can grow it well it will just gently spread to form a smallish mat. This is one that prefers a cooler climate so in mild coastal areas, it is not always easy to find the right spot.

The daphne I have failed to establish but will try again is the Chinese Daphne genkwa. Some of you may wonder why it is worth trying because it is one of the very few daphnes with no scent – and why grow a daphne with no scent? Because it is a beautiful blue and it carries these gorgeous flowers in spring, generally with no leaves, on long upright stems. It is simply lovely and graceful in flower. I was a bit reassured that my Hilliers Manual (the gardener’s bible) tells me that it is difficult to establish. Glyn Church agrees in his book, “Trees and Shrubs for Fragrance” and points out that it suckers as well and is not a tidy grower, but the flowers are such a delight that all is forgiven.

I can’t think of any other plant that would rival the common daphnes for outrageous fragrance and generally good behaviour. Notwithstanding the weed potential of bholua, these are low maintenance plants which are genuinely easy care. They don’t like to be moved so you plant them and leave them. They don’t need spraying, don’t need deadheading and require little in the way of grooming or pruning. Nor do they clash with other plants and in mid to late winter through to spring they reward with heavenly scent. It is no wonder they are such a popular plant.