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D Is for Daphne

I can still remember the first Daphne that caught my eye. It was more than four decades ago when I was working as a gardener on a 40-acre estate in Whonnock. It featured a natural ravine landscape with mass plantings of rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and Fuchsia magellanica, but it held only one Daphne plant from my recollection. That solitary shrub was a Daphne mezereum or February Daphne and its bright magenta-pink blossoms (they can also bear pale pink to white blooms such as ‘Bowles White’) on bare stems scented the entire garden from late February through March before the true riot of spring colour left one oblivious of individual beauty.

Daphnes, in general, are a complex species: on the one hand, they are highly sought-after by the gardening public for their intoxicating fragrance, and yet when people go to the garden centre looking for them, they often find little, if any, stock. The reason for this is that Daphnes are notoriously hard to propagate and they grow slowly. Couple that with a high mortality rate in the juvenile phase and it's no wonder that few wholesale nurseries decide to grow them. The handful of growers that do bother have to divide their meager crop between the infinitely more retail garden centres looking to sell them, which means we only get a relative handful each. So my advice to you is that if you find a Daphne you like, buy it immediately.

Unlike the aforementioned Daphne mezereum, most Daphnes are evergreen (or semi-evergreen) in nature and several of these make for spectacular foliage shrubs. The more common variegated forms include Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ and Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, with the former bearing intensely fragrant pale-pink flowers over glossy evergreen foliage from March to April. A pair of Daphnes worth growing just for their dazzling foliage would be Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Brigg’s Moonlight’ and Daphne odora ‘Mae-Jima’.

The most popular Daphne to date is the long-blooming Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ which flowers from late spring through the summer with white-blushed-pink blooms on a compact plant that matures to 3’ tall and wide. This cultivar has largely supplanted the older ‘Jim’s Pride’, although the latter tends to bloom even longer (late April to early November). Probably the second most common Daphne these days is ‘Lawrence Crocker’, a diminutive evergreen shrub (12” tall) with unique purplish-pink blooms from late spring into summer. Another equally worthy alpine shrub would be Daphne cneorum or Garland Flower which bears bright-pink terminal clusters in spring, growing 18” tall by 2-3’ wide at maturity. The AGM-winning Daphne x susannae ‘Cheriton’ also fits into this dwarf alpine category with its lavender-pink flowers and compact form maturing at 12-18” tall by 24-30” wide. A little harder to find is Daphne x rollsdorfii ‘Wilhelm Schacht’, another diminutive shrub (18” tall) which bears bright-violet-pink blooms from May to July, but has a reputation of being slightly easier to grow.

A few Daphne species you may come across include D. tangutica (matures at 4’ tall), an evergreen with glossy foliage and pale-pink flowers, which often mature to bright-red berries. These are quite toxic (but unlikely to be eaten due to their bitterness) and it should be noted that the sap from all Daphnes can be a skin irritant. Daphne sericea is a native of the Mediterranean and bears highly scented magenta-pink flowers over a compact plant (12-18” tall) in late spring, with some repeat blooming.

Perhaps the only Daphne you don’t want in your garden is the evergreen Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola) which is on the B.C. invasive plant list. It bears pale yellow flowers in the leaf nodes from February to early April that mature to black berries. While the fruits are toxic to people and pets, they are not poisonous to birds who readily eat them and deposit the seeds (and subsequently the plants) throughout our forests.

Daphne laureola
Daphne laureola

Last but not least are two important pieces of advice. First, Daphnes are notorious slow to establish and hate being transplanted, so choose your planting site carefully. Secondly, the shrubs are weak-wooded and cannot bear any snow load without splitting or bowing out and losing their form, so remove the weight as soon as possible.

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