Winter is the season when evergreens become more prominent in the landscape. Gardeners rely on the richness of conifer needles and the foliage of broadleaved evergreens to add depth and definition to the texture and color of the winter landscape. As an entire group, the broadleaved evergreens are, generally, even more loosely botanically connected than the conifers, with a diverse range of botanical families represented. In spite of their botanical diversity, these plants are often united in the minds of gardeners by their potential role in the winter garden. But the 'broadleaved evergreens' include such a range of fascinating and unique material that each one deserves special attention, from the well-known and loved Rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.) to less usual and choice plants like Danae racemosa, Poet's Laurel.
Poet's Laurel (or Alexandrian Laurel) is one of the most exquisitely elegant evergreens that can grace a garden. It is actually a woody member of the Lily botanical family, although Danae racemosa's insignificant, yellowish flowers are hardly reminiscent of the great, colorful trumpets generally associated with more commonly known members of this family. Poet's Laurel is a small, very slow growing, evergreen shrub. It grows so slowly that it is rarely seen larger than 2-3 feet in height, with an equal spread, in the landscape but it can reach greater size with time. It has a gracefully open habit, with slender branches that arch up and away from it's crown like wings from the back of a swan.
The 2-3 inch 'leaves' of Poet's Laurel are actually flattened stems that are technically referred to as 'phylloclades' (the true leaves are tiny bract-like structures, barely visible, adjacent to the phylloclades). These leaf-like structures are among the most beautiful 'foliage' in the plant world. Glossy and emerald green, with a refined, tapered oval outline, each 'leaf' is distinctly silhouetted and balanced gently away from the main stem, which terminates in yet another perfect 'leaf'. With some shade, the phylloclades look magnificent 12 months of the year. The 'foliage' of Poet's Laurel is so glossy and richly colored that it looks as if it was brushed into place by a Japanese master of painted silks. The branches of Poet's Laurel make wonderful cut foliage as they keep beautifully fresh looking for long periods of time.
Inconspicuous, green-yellow flowers appear in spring but they ripen in the fall into a few, delightful carmine berries that dangle appealingly from the 'leaf' axils. The bright, inedible fruit is about the size of wild cherries (1/2 inch diameter) and is a welcome visual treat into the winter.
Poet's Laurel is native to western Asia. It needs at least part shade to thrive, with full sun resulting in foliar scorch and plant decline over time. Poet's Laurel will grow in a range of soils as long as it is kept relatively moist. It has been an excellent plant in the Shade House at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum). It is completely hardy on the coast and in most areas of the Piedmont but is decidedly risky in the mountains. Poet's Laurel has no significant pest or disease problems but it is very difficult to propagate which is much of the reason why it is a difficult plant to find in the trade. Poet's Laurel does not root well from cuttings, but parent plants can be successfully divided. Propagation from seed will succeed - but it is a slow, tedious process. Berries must be collected, the seed separated from the flesh of the berry, and then the seed must be stored for as long as 1 -2 years (!) in a moist medium while the embryo develops. Once signs of germination are apparant, seed can be sown, but even then, seedlings take 2 -3 years to reach a marketable size. This protracted production time is why it generally takes a good deal of hunting to find this remarkable plant in the trade, but it is well worth the trouble to locate.
Poet's Laurel is a horticultural gift for the shaded areas of the winter garden. Its quintessential elegance and quiet refinement are more consistently rewarding than the flashy qualities of the'showier' broadleaved evergreens. The striking, yet subtle beauty of this botanical bard offers otherwordly landscape character found in few plants. Invite Danae racemosa into your landscape and bring the perfect repose of inspired botanical poetry into the winter garden.