Daphne, Daphne: “Pleasantly Spicy”
The scent of Daphne precedes it, like the reputation of Daphne, the wood nymph. In Greek mythology, she was so appalled by the lechery of Apollo that she became a tree and stopped him in his tracks. Daphne the shrub does not always behave as expected either.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.
A modest shrub with leaves that bear a passing resemblance to those from the laurel family (which Daphne joined when she became a Laurus nobilis), Daphne is hard to miss in other ways. Gardeners yearn for its powerful spicy fragrance in late winter, while passersby are pleasantly surprised, when a daphne is planted near the street.
Daphne does have a reputation for being tricky and will show its displeasure by dying. Soil of the woodland type is ideal, with leaf litter naturally added during the year’s cycle or added purposefully as a mulch. Drainage must be good while most varieties will not tolerate dryness. Speaking from experience, a container is not a good idea.
- Daphne has many recommended varieties, but you may as well go for those with good leaves and berries, as well as scent. They are generally quite expensive.
- Like other evergreen or semievergreen scented shrubs, daphne is not a thrilling plant in summer. Plant it near a path but not in pride of place; it mingles well with scented sarcococca and skimmia.
- For the best spring scent, there is Daphne odora but also D. bholua. Of the latter, ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is a respected hardy evergreen.
Keep It Alive
- Daphne tolerates shade but welcomes sun; its soil should be more or less neutral and always free-draining. For heavy soil in shade that sometimes dries out (f0r instance under a tree), Daphne laureola is more accommodating, but in exchange the scent is less pronounced.
- Daphnes are native to Europe and northern Africa and tolerate different levels of cold; even within one variety the hardiness levels vary, so check carefully.
- Downsides include yellowing of leaves due to nutrient deficiencies, aphid damage, and virus infection. Establishment can seem like a long journey; daphnes are toxic.
The Royal Horticultural Society lists the difficulty level of daphne as “moderate.” And yet they are well worth a try if you have the nurturing instinct. It might be wise to look for daphnes that have been awarded the AGM (Award for Garden Merit) as they will have been rigorously trialed. These include: Daphne x Burkwoodii ‘Somerset’, lightly variegated D. odora ‘Aureomarginata’, D. bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, and D. cneorum ‘Exima’.
Grow daphne by an often-used gate or door for the full benefit of its exotic fragrance.
For more growing and care tips, see Daphnes: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design and for more of our favorite flowering shrubs, see our curated guide to Shrubs 101, including Boxwood, Hydrangea, and Rhododendron. Read more: