Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Plant To Make You Swoon - winter daphne

Photo credit


I’m a sucker for fragrance. I went into the store to buy cheese – and came out with a bunch of freesia. That was after driving ten miles out of my way to find white hyacinths in bloom for the containers by my front door. Well I didn’t find any hyacinths but I did find something else. Daphne.

I was like a dog sniffing  the air while a steak sizzled on the barbeque. Where was that delicious scent coming from though? I was standing amongst a group of grasses and I knew none of them had any fragrance; then I spotted them. A  row of winter daphne (Daphne odora marginata) were at least 30’ away and only a handful of the small flowers were open yet their scent wafted easily across the breeze, luring me mercilessly towards  them. Actually I restrained myself and came away without any. “What!” you cry. Well if I’m honest I had already purchased three large ones just a few days beforehand…

Billowing mounds of winter daphne - a taste of heaven ?
Photo credit
I’ve always loved these evergreen shrubs for their glossy green leaves edged with a soft yellow margin but of course they are best known for their intensely fragrant spring flowers. Rosy pink buds open to clusters of white flowers on mounding bushes. Typically these grow to 3’ tall and wide although I have a friend who by her own admission leaves her garden to fend for itself and her specimen is considerably larger. Typical.

Winter daphne has a reputation for being fickle so what are their growing requirements? Since these are new additions to my own garden I’ll have to share the information provided in reputable horticultural texts. All agree that these thrive in morning sun and afternoon shade – ideally dappled shade. However several of my nursery friends here in the Seattle area would insist that their Daphne do equally well in full sun. I have a hard time believing that they wouldn’t burn in a full western exposure so do leave a comment below to share your experience.

For water – well if my gardening challenged friend is anything to go by they really don’t need fussing with. A decent, deep watering once or twice a week seems to be sufficient, avoiding either drought or drowning.

Breathe deeply...........
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Which brings us to soil which should be moisture retentive rather than sandy. A yearly top dressing of compost is beneficial but once again my friend would indicate this is far from essential as I think her garden has only been given compost once in the 5 or so years I’ve known her!

Cold hardiness –the label says ‘zones 7-9’. A month ago I was in zone 7, at least theoretically, as I’m not sure that whoever drew up the old zoning map ever visited Duvall. I have always considered us zone 6 ¾ …. (correctly referred to as 6b but 6 ¾ is more descriptive don’t you think?). Anyway the powers that be recently reclassified the hardiness zones so without even moving house I am now officially in 8b. By definition that means our  average winter temperature ranges from 15-20F. I’m not convinced. This would suggest that my current Duvall garden has the same winter range as my previous garden (Kirkland) which was closer to the water. Yet even as I’m writing this is it snowing heavily here and Kirkland doesn’t have a single flake! Our spring bulbs also bloom at least 2 weeks later. Moreover I have plenty of gardening friends here in Duvall who would back me up in saying that there is no way we are in as mild a climatic zone as Kirkland and there are several plants which don’t survive here that flourished in my Kirkland home. I’d love to know what you think. Here’s a link to the new map. Regardless I’m going to try and grow them here!


Heuchera 'Berry smoothie' could make a
colorful partner and this variety tolerates
more sun than most.
Photo credit
Now for the fun part – selecting companions. By virtue of the delicate pink buds these winter daphne look perfectly placed adjacent to or beneath a dark leafed japanese maple, especially if it is a variety which has finely dissected foliage. Lower companions could include one of the pink or purple shades of coral bells (Heuchera) such as 'Midnight rose' or 'Blackcurrant', which would offer year round color since they are also evergreen. Interspersing these with clumps of white snowdrops would complete the vignette.


'Georgia peach' Heuchera snuggles up
to winter daphne and is joined by 'Pink
frost' hellebore, periwinkle and evergreen
grasses in this north facing container.
My design

Winter daphne should always be placed near a window or alongside a pathway so the fragrance can be appreciated but if you don’t have adequate planting space I have successfully grown them in containers. Sometimes you can find winter daphne grown as a short standard allowing them to be placed in the middle of a container leaving room for short mounding and trailing plants underneath. If space in the container is limited, height can be added by adding lengths of red twigs from shrub dogwood or coral bark maple.  Pussy willow stems would also be attractive and would balance the height of the design while keeping the focus on the daphne. Until recently winter daphne was only available in a 1 gallon size or larger but I recently found them in smaller pots, offering an opportunity for even the most petite designs.

One negative is that these shrubs dislike being transplanted, which is botanical speak for ‘they will pass out, shrivel up and die’. My answer is to site them carefully in the garden and move the pots around until you are sure you have found the perfect spot. For container plantings – enjoy them while you can. When they eventually outgrow their allotted space you may have to sacrifice their beauty. But by then you will definitely have had your monies worth. 

Think how many bunches of freesia you would have needed to buy to enjoy that much perfume.




10 comments:

  1. I do not have any winter daphne in my garden, and I am wondering why I don't. There is not much more room in the garden, but this may be a nice addition if I can find a spot. I really like the container with the heuchera...lovely combination!

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    1. When there's no room in the garden, fill a container!!

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  2. Whenever you post about particular plants, Karen, I'm always green with damp-climate (or at least non-desert) envy! I'm with you in being a little skeptical about the new hardiness zone map. Both here and in VT, I think the old ones came closer to reality. Your 3/4 is a very handy designation! Subtle shadings are key.

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    1. I'm interested to hear your take on the new zones, especially as you live in such a different area. For those of us with hands on experience it's less confusing perhaps than it is for new gardeners who rely on accurate information when reading plant tags.

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  3. One of my favourite winter flowers, Karen. Makes a nice change from all these hellebores that I covet so much. Now where could fir a daphne in ? I think we need a bigger garden...

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    1. They do look lovely with the right hellebore though as you can see in the container design above. I'm sure you could find a spot!

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  4. Mine grows in a pot. The nurseryman who sold it to me emphasized the need for good drainage, which is why it is in the pot, so I can control the environment a bit better. I do move it around the garden. Mine has been blooming for weeks and is about finished. I am now officially zone 8a. It's hard to believe your northwest climate is milder than mine, though I realize the hardiness zones don't really take into account summer heat. Definitely we have more severe summer heat than you do, and that is the challenging part of our climate for plants.

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    1. Good point about drainage and I'm hoping for the best.The bed I have planted them in has well drained soil but I have added a fair amount of organic matter to help conserve moisture during summer. Hopefully I haven't overdone it.

      Like you I'm surprised we should be considered to have a milder climate than yours. I feel as though these zones need to take into account annual rainfall, heat AND cold! Although I suppose the rainfall bit is covered by information on soil types.

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  5. I have been growing winter daphne for years and actually prefer the straight species with solid green leaves to 'Aureomarginata'. East facing is correct with dappled shade. They get considerably larger than 3' if you can keep them alive that long. Good drainage is crucial and watering is not required---we have never watered even in droughts. We remove the soil and replace it with a mixture of sand and compost. Several of our plants died from too much water when it rained constantly for 3 months here (record breaking). We are old zone 6B new 7A.

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    1. I think I saw your daphne on your blog recently - very healthy!. I think I'll pull the mulch away from my daphne for a bit of extra insurance - thanks for the reminder.

      Your note about lack of water explains why my friend does so well with these shrubs! Overall they do seem to grow very well in our area.

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