The trouble with Daphne

Of all the shrubs grown in British gardens it must be the Daphnes that hold the most awe. From uninteresting shrubs come fairly small flowers in white, purple, pink or yellow, but the allure of the genus comes from their powerful perfume.

Not all Daphnes have fragrance, but the most popular varieties do. Occasionally you might see some of the rare species like D. gemmata or D. jezoensis* (both yellow flowered by the way) on the showbench but when you lean in to take a deep sniff you are left somewhat disappointed.

By far the most popular Daphne is ‘Jacqueline Postill’ (above), a form of Daphne bholua selected from seedlings of D. bholua ‘Gurkha’ at the Hillier Arboretum in 1982 and named for the wife of the propagator, Alan Postill. What attracted Mr Postill to this particular seedling was that it was more evergreen than others, and appeared to have a greater degree of hardiness than others. Recent difficulties propagating this plant and the resulting price increases have allowed other D. bholua cultivars to become more popular, but these are a little less hardy so much greater care is needed to help them thrive.

For those without the space for a form of D. bholua, which can make 2-3m in height, there are a wealth of smaller varieties available through specialist growth. These smaller plants prefer a little more sun to D. bholua, so are better in the open garden. If space is at a premium then the low, spreading forms of Daphne odora make an excellent alternative, and by now growing quite so tall they’re easy to shelter behind walls, hedges or other plants.

So what conditions do Daphnes want? Well, that depends on the Daphne! Larger woodland plants like D. bholua want a nice humus rich soil with shelter from strong winds and will tolerate a degree of shade, while the smaller Daphnes prefer plenty of sun. Drainage is very important for all Daphnes, but here’s the thing- they don’t like drying out. You’re looking to grow them in a soil that retains sufficient moisture while letting excess water drain away. Note: shoving a load of grit into a hole in heavy soil does not count as drainage; the whole of the bed/border needs to drain properly. Oh, and that uniform moisture needs to be all year round.

There has long been an idea that all Daphnes are ericaceous but this isn’t completely true. Our friend the D. bholua doesn’t seem all that fussed providing the soil isn’t very alkaline, so a neutral soil is fine, but some of the other Daphnes can actually prefer a bit of lime. I’m afraid it’s best to do your research before you buy the plant…! It’s probably best to go easy on feeding all Daphnes, so maybe half strength seaweed feeds or a bit of leaf mould on the border would be preferable to overdoing it.

So now to the million dollar question; why do Daphnes always drop dead? It’s probably unfair to say that Daphnes are ‘difficult’, but they are exacting in their requirements. Success with Daphnes comes from giving them what they want, so you will struggle to grow D. bholua in an exposed spot which is hot in summer and ice cold in winter no matter how much you want to enjoy the perfume from your patio. The dwarf species and hybrids tend to be alpine in origin so need that drainage to be right, but also enjoy their water. Specialist growers may grow their Daphnes in sand ‘plunge’ beds in an alpine house, which keeps rain off the plant (and the gardener!) or in large troughs. Either way the secret is to give the plant exactly what it wants.

Bear in mind that Daphnes can also drop dead for no apparent reason too. Larger plants might get rocked around by wind, and no Daphne is particularly keen on being dug up and moved. Ultimately this is a genus of plants that have evolved to delight and annoy gardeners in equal measure.

Daphne mezereum rubra2small

Further reading… Daphne expert Robin White wrote his Daphnes: A Practical Guide For Gardeners based on a lifetime of growing them. It’s a very good no-nonsense guide, straightforward and easy to follow, and goes into all of the necessary detail you need to find the right Daphne for you (or to know what to do with the stroppy little sod you’ve just bought!). It doesn’t cover every Daphne available, but instead focusses on the ones you’re most likely to have success with. Timber Press 2006.

The Hillier Manual Of Trees And Shrubs has several pages of Daphne descriptions. Interesting history of many varieties, but somewhat vague on cultivation requirements. RHS/Hillier, 2014 (eighth edition).

*Robin White’s excellent book Daphnes: A Practical Guide For Gardeners describes D. jezoensis as having a delicate Freesia-like perfume. The only time I’ve come across this species was on the showbench and there was no discernible scent; maybe it was mislabelled, or maybe it wasn’t feeling well after a long car journey?