Daphne was a female nymph in Greek Mythology. Her beauty was legendary and attracted the unwanted attentions of Apollo, who pursued her unmercifully in one of the many tales.
Daphne, in an attempt to thwart his unwanted attentions, pleaded with her father for help and he turned her into a laurel tree. Hence the Greek for Daphne is laurel. Whilst Laurus nobilis is a lovely evergreen shrub noted for its’ medicinal and culinary uses, it belongs to the same family as Daphne, Thymelaeaceae, a large genus including many herbs and wonderfully fragrant plants.
The genus Daphne is one of the most perfumed and attractive winter-flowering shrubs available to gardeners. The first time I smelt a Daphne was at my old college grounds; the most delicious scent exuded from a mid-sized variegated shrub, nestled in the edge of a wooded copse in dappled shade. It was Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’. This plant heralded originally from China and Japan, from the lower altitude regions; a rounded evergreen shrub with leathery, glossy, deep green leaves with yellowy-cream leaf margins. The lily-scented perfume is gorgeous and comes from the clusters of delicate pinkish-white flowers, arranged over the shrub from midwinter to early spring. It rarely exceeds 1.5m in width and height, and is perfect for spot near a path or sunny winter seat.
Daphne mezereum is a different proposition. It comes from the higher altitude regions and flowers before any leaves emerge. This is an evolutionary adaptation to ensure pollination; leaves would be an unwelcome distraction to its flowers, which bloom during the winter months when there are less pollinating insects around! We have a particularly large grouping of this shrub on the winter walk, which this year due to the mild winter, are flowering quite magnificently. It bears spicily fragrant pink flowers in small clusters up the stem, up-to a height of 1.2m. Interestingly, Mezerein can be found in Daphne mezereum. This is a toxin, along with daphnetoxin that is present in the whole genus. Whilst the plant used to be important in making dyes and treating rheumatism, it was primarily used as a treatment for skin disorders. Once the toxicity of the plant was discovered it was no longer used. The toxin, however, does not affect the thrushes that feast on all the berries, even though all parts – sap, bark and berries – are highly poisonous to us.
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is another one of the evergreen shrubs from high in the Himalayas to Nepal and southern China. It is more columnar than the other two, reaching heights of 2-4m when mature. The very fruity, pungent blooms are tubular and dark purplish-pink, fading to white inside. The species is one of a number where the inner bark is used in traditional paper making in Nepal – hence its common name ‘Paper Daphne’. Its berries are jet black and a great treat for the birds in late spring. There are three specimens located in the Scented Garden.
Daphnes are a challenge to grow in the north. The cultivars I have mentioned are growing at Harlow Carr, but slowly and not without some plant deaths after last winter. They prefer shelter, and once planted resent being moved. Neutral to slightly alkaline soil suits most species, enjoying well-drained, moisture-retentive, humus rich soil. Daphne mezereum is more tolerant of heavier soils than some of the others but they all dislike drought or water logging. It’s best to plant in spring, and mulch with some leaf mould yearly to keep the roots moist.