Daphnes really are heaven scent

By Gareth Winter


At work, I have been helping a lovely lady called Daphne with some research and my mind has been filled with thoughts of those sweetly fragrant favourite plants all week.

I suppose it could also be something to do with my first real acquaintance with the newly-arrived (in New Zealand at least) hybrid that glories in the name of D. x transatlantica, although in our country it is usually met with in the form of Eternal Fragrance.

This plant is a hybrid, the result of a naturally occurring cross between two species seldom seen here, D. collina and D. caucasica, combining the small stature and strong fragrance of the former with the fragrance and long-blooming period of the latter.

It is sometimes possible to find D. collina - usually further south than here - and there is a lovely pink-flowered hybrid called, somewhat bizarrely D. hybrida, that can be found in some garden centres.

Eternal Fragrance is a compact, semi-evergreen, mounded shrub that blooms with gusto in early spring, then continues from October to the first frosts of winter with small clusters of fragrant, pink-budded white flowers.

This plant has become popular overseas and looks likely to be as popular here, being longer-lived than the more commonly grown forms of Daphne. It is also a tidy growing form and will grow well in pots - I have even seen it used as a hedge in overseas magazines - but that may be taking it too far.

Overseas there is a variegated form called Summer Ice, with a lovely white rim around the edge of each of the fine leaves, but I have not seen it offered for sale here yet.

I am looking forward to planting Eternal Fragrance soon as, over the years, I have grown more kinds of Daphne than I care to remember - at least 10 forms.

The most popular of these is Daphne odora, the daphne most people know as the common variety. Nowadays, this is usually encountered in the form of the strongly upright growing form known as Leucanthe, and its white counterpart, Leucanthe Alba. These are lovely shrubs that carry superbly fragrant flowers in great abundance in later winter and early spring. The scent is heady and spicy - some have described it as being reminiscent of jasmine.

However, like many daphnes, they can be slightly temperamental and it does not pay to get too attached to any one of them as they are prone to slowly slipping away.

They are a bit fussy as to soil - needing slightly acidic conditions, with humus-rich soil that does not dry out in summer, or become waterlogged in winter. They can cope with full sun but do best if they are grown where they will get some shelter from the worst of the afternoon heat. They do not like being replanted, and are best replaced with container-grown stock. They are not too fussed about heavy pruning either - it is best to nibble away at them throughout their life. I find one good way is to remove the flowering buds, either when they are in flower (they are great in the vase) or shortly after they finish. It helps keep the plants compact too, as they can get a bit straggly.

There are a couple of other forms of D. odora worth looking out for. The old form, Rubra, has the deepest coloured flowers, although it is a slightly untidy grower; the branches dipping off at their own behest. This is the form our grandparents grew.

As a general rule, variegated plants are not as hardy as fully green ones - it is obvious when you think about it as they have less chlorophyll and as such are not so efficient at growing as their more complete cousins.

But this does not seem to be the case with daphnes, as the classy Aureomarginata seems to be tougher than its green counterpart. I love this lovely plant with its lively yellow rim around the edge of each dark green leaf and it does seem to survive longer in the garden than the plain-leaved types, which can be a little transient.

Another introduction to New Zealand gardens has been the Nepalese paper tree, Daphne bholua. I think this is a treasure, as it is more-or-less evergreen, is upright growing and also carries masses of scented flowers, albeit not as scented as the common daphne.

But it does have a downside. Firstly, it can get a bit scruffy-looking, especially as it ages. I have been out trimming the top of my specimen as it has become denuded at the extremes.

And, even worse for some people, it tends to sucker and set copious seeds. Funnily enough, I have not seen that as a problem in the garden here. I have tried to find any seed on either of my plants and have yet to find a hint of a seed pod.

Those who garden in wetter and milder conditions tell me it can become a pest and I know it has proven a bit of a bother in parts of Taranaki.

Still, we do not have Taranaki conditions and you can hide its tendency to become a bit scrappy looking by planting it at the rear of a border and allowing it to grow up and give you the scented flowers you always want from a daphne.

I have grown pink- and white-flowered forms of this species and, although one went to the great garden in the sky after a few years, the other must be at least 10 years old and is thriving.

- WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

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