"It's around that corner....", "No, I'm certain it's beyond the border..", "Oh, surely its on the other side of that bench....". These are not the observations of a flock of birders in search of a hidden, rare warbler, nor are they even the exclamations of a grove of garden club members in search of a new nursery (although the quarry can be equally elusive). They are, instead, the remarks of any number of late-winter visitors to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) as they search for the source of one of the most deliciously enticing fragrances in the botanical world - the fragrance of Winter Daphne, Daphne odora.
Winter Daphne is only one of a number of choice species belonging to the Daphne genus. Most of these fragrantly elegant plants bloom in early spring, but two of the species bloom in winter, perfuming the crisp air with a lush, lemony, floral scent that is irresistible. Both D. odora, Winter Daphne, and D. mezereum, February Daphne, bloom anywhere from late January through early March with clusters of rosy pink to lavender blooms.
Winter Daphne is an evergreen, rounded shrub reaching 3-4 in height with an equal spread and a very handsome, dense habit. In January, the flower buds swell into colorful, tight, pink clusters which open in February into charming, bell-like florets that persist into March. February Daphne is a semi-evergreen to deciduous shrub of somewhat larger and more coarse habit than Winter Daphne but with equally delightful flowers and fragrance and the added bonus of developing attractive, cherry red fruits. The fragrance from these flowers is a horticultural treasure which gardeners spend freely wherever Daphne will grow.
Like all Daphnes, both D. odora and D. mezeruem have a reputation for being temperamental in the garden. This reputation is based on Daphne's strong aversion to being moved once established and for a certain propensity for the plant to die suddenly for little or no apparent reason. This is especially true of D. mezereum which suffers from a sort of sudden-death virus. If transplanted with care, however, and sited correctly, both of these winter blooming Daphnes can give years of elegant garden delight, both for their form and fragrance. Both of these Daphnes are completely hardy throughout the coastal plain and Piedmont with, in general, only D. mezereum being useful in very sheltered sites in the mountains. They both prefer moist, well-drained, neutral pH soil in light shade, but they will tolerate more acidic soils. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), both of these plants have performed well in relatively heavy clay soils but they have not been moved since they were transplanted. Moving Daphne after it has been planted is a sure way to cause sudden-death in this plant.
There a number of spring blooming Daphnes, both rare and easily found, which we will save for future discussion, but there are also a number of cultivars of the two winter-blooming species that are also worthy of attention. There are three white flowered forms of D. mezereum. One is a botanical form, D. mezereum var. alba, with creamy white flowers that can be grown from seed, and two are named cultivars. Both 'Paul's White' and 'Bowle's White' are pure, bright-white flowered forms of February Daphne. Winter Daphne also sports a white flowered form called 'Alba' (but this is a named cultivar) with cream-white flowers. 'Aureo-marginata' is an especially cold-hardy form of Winter Daphne with leaves lightly margined in gold that would be a good choice for adventurous mountain gardeners with sheltered sites. 'Mazellii' is an interesting form of Winter Daphne that bears flowers in the axils of leaves as well as at the end of its branches and 'Variegata' is another yellow-variegated form with brighter, more distinct marginal variegation and lighter pink flowers than 'Aureo-marginata'.
Daphne odora and D. mezereum can be propagated by rooted cuttings but they are somewhat inconsistent rooters. Cuttings with hardened wood should be taken in early summer, treated with rooting promoters, and rooted under mist. Freshly harvested seed can also be sown and successfully germinated.
The beguiling fragrance of Winter or February Daphne is an extraordinary presence in the garden, made even more so when either of these is planted near a walk or patio where their fragrance is inescapable. However, there is a delicious appeal to planting Daphne in a slightly mysterious spot, placed to draw visitors to the garden on into the plantings in search of the center of that amazing aroma.....("Now I'm sure its hidden behind the topiary....").