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Daphne is such a sweet number, writes Sue Witleman.
Like fish and chips, strawberries and cream, or whiskers on kittens, some things are just meant to go together, and so it is with noses and daphne, truly a sublime pairing.
It’s hard to imagine life without the scent of daphne heralding the entrance of spring, and some varieties commence flowering in winter, most welcome at that quiet time in the gardening year.
Daphne likes soil high in organic material, a partially shaded spot and a moist, well-drained soil. Care begins with planting, when the main consideration is to not fiddle with the roots as these shrubs dislike root disturbance, so don’t tease them out as you would other shrubs.
I would advise against buying a large grade of daphne, not only because of the root-disturbance issue but also because a top-heavy daphne can rock in the wind, causing root damage. A younger plant will establish more quickly and settle down more easily. If you do have a top-heavy plant and you’re concerned about root-rock, place two stakes in an X shape through the bush to help secure it.
If your daphne is potted in peat when you get it, plunge it into a bucket of water and hold it there until the bubbles stop coming out of the root ball — you want the daphne to go into the ground fully charged with water. If you plant it with a dry root-ball, it may never accept water into the potting mix.
Mulch your daphne after it is planted with a mix suitable for acid-loving plants and resist the urge to plant around the base. Keep it free of weeds, as it doesn’t like any root competition.
Varieties to choose from
There are more varieties of daphne than perhaps you would expect. The usuals found in garden centres are Daphne odora ‘Leucanthe’ (waxy pink and white flowers), D. odora ‘Leucanthe Rubra’ (reddish-pink and white flowers) and D. odora ‘Leucanthe Alba’ (white flowers). These grow about 1m high by 1m wide and have dark evergreen leaves.
D. x burkwoodii is semi-evergreen with softer grey-green leaves and starry pink flowers appearing in mid-spring and again in late summer. It can be grown in full sun.
A newer daphne is D. ‘Perfume Princess’, which has the largest flowers and is the longest flowering. A cross between D. odora and D. bholua, it was bred in Taranaki by Mark Jury.
D. x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ grows to just 60cm and produces the occasional flower throughout the year.
Some of the less usual daphnes include D. bholua (although it is well-known in southern New Zealand), a 3m Himalayan evergreen with airy clusters of pink flowers, which has a white-flowered form, ‘White Ice’; D. cneorum, a trailing, low-growing (30cm) shrub, with rosy-pink flowers; and D. mezereum, a deciduous daphne growing to 1.2m high, with reddish purple flowers and red berries. Tiny D. petraea, which comes from northern Italy, is good for pot culture and popular with alpine enthusiasts.
There are also several variegated daphnes with cream or yellow edges to the leaves – look for D. x burkwoodii ‘Variegata’, D. odora ‘Rubra Variegata’ and D. odora ‘Aureomarginata’.
Maintaining your daphne
Feed your daphne in spring after flowering and again in autumn. For those in containers, use a slow-release fertiliser especially formulated for pots.
Pruning a daphne is not usually necessary, but if you need to do this, carry out any pruning on the winter-flowering varieties in early spring straight after flowering, and, for later-flowering varieties, prune in late spring – just make sure you do any pruning either during flowering (picking the flowers is a type of pruning) or immediately after flowering.
Daphne can get scale and aphids, which cause the appearance of sooty mould – treat the insects, not the mould.
There are several reasons why this might happen. Firstly, check the moisture levels, as yellow leaves can be an indication of overwatering (which daphne really dislikes). On the other hand, not enough water may result in a dry root ball and a stressed plant. Maybe your daphne is receiving too much direct sun: some need to be in shady positions, while others can tolerate more sun. Often yellowing of the leaves indicates chlorosis. Remedy this by adding Sequestrene, iron chelates or aluminium sulphate.
Sometimes a daphne will seem to collapse overnight. Sadly, they can do this and there is nothing to be done.
Picking the flowers
Try to pick in the early morning when the flowers have recovered from the previous day and have more moisture in them, so will last longer. To leave the shrub looking pretty at the front, do most of your cutting from the back, unless you need to prune or shape the bush. Even then, try not to cut back into the bare wood – keep some leaves. Daphne will last in a vase for up to two weeks.
Using daphne in your garden
When placing your daphne in the garden, try to plant it close to the front door or somewhere you often go and sit. Daphne looks elegant when grown as a standard – plant it in a container, and, if you pot up two, they can be placed either side of an entrance, door or seat. White daphne looks particularly appealing used in this way. When putting daphne in containers, use a large size that will last the lifetime of the plant. Usually the advice when growing is go up only one size, but because daphne will probably die if you try to repot it later on, you need to plant it in a generous-sized pot at the outset. Daphne can also be used as an evergreen scented hedge.
When you are looking for a daphne for your garden, perhaps branch out and try some of the more unusual ones, for you can never have too much scent in a garden.
- Sue Witleman