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A fellow came by the office last week with a clipping of a gorgeous evergreen shrub with fragrant light pink to almost white flowers. He had noticed the plant at his church and desperately wanted one for his home.
The list of evergreen plants with fragrant blooms in March is pretty short, so I didn’t have any trouble identifying it as winter daphne or daphne odora. I had some trouble helping the gentlemen understand how to keep the plant alive once he added it to his garden.
Native to China and Japan, winter daphne is prized for its fragrant blooms in mid-to- late winter. Like most plants this year, it’s late to the blooming party because of the extended cool temperatures.
Many of the most popular daphnes have cream-colored leaf edges, which add to the appeal. Growing into a neatly mounding shrub of 4-by-4 feet, this plant fits lots of landscape situations: foundation plantings around the house, the front of a border, mixed with herbaceous perennials and deciduous shrubs.
If this plant is so wonderful, a logical question is: “Why don’t I see them growing everywhere?”
Winter daphne is a bit of a botanical diva. Sometimes it does great no matter what the insult. Other times it dies no matter what the extreme measures of organic soil preparation, perfect drainage, prayer, voodoo or anything else you can come up with. I planted one in my back garden last year in a soil and exposure that “the book” suggests is ideal. It lasted six months before it succumbed to phytophthora root rot.
Once you see and smell winter daphne, you’ll have to have one. Just don’t get too attached. Plant them in a well-drained soil that has been heavily amended with organic matter. Choose a location that has plenty of bright light but gets a bit of protection from the hottest mid-day summer sun.
Use irrigation to keep the soil evenly moist but not too wet. If your soil tends to be on the acid side, many references suggest you raise the pH with lime to around 6.5—about 10 times higher than for azaleas. The reality is daphnes will probably do well in soils prepared for azaleas, camellias and gardenias.
Carol Mackie is a hybrid with striking, whorled and variegated leaves. It usually blooms a bit later than the straight Daphne odoras. It shares the fragrant blooms and the Whitney Houston-like eccentricity.
Since all parts of the plant are somewhat poisonous, daphnes can be parts of gardens frequented by white-tailed deer. If you are fortunate enough to have a plant that is performing well, leave it where it is. Daphnes don’t tolerate root loss and disturbance.
Looking for other plants that bloom in winter and have fragrant blooms? Try Japanese flowering apricot, witchhazel and flowering almond. And, none of those are nearly as temperamental as daphne.
Al Hight is the county extension director and horticulturist with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.