Winter in Sonoma County can bring on days of cold, gray doldrums. Even when the garden seems to have the winter blahs, there is a wonderful plant that will puncture the gloom. This shining star is Daphne. A delicious, sweet odor is the hallmark of this lovely shrub that is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia. In myth, Daphne was the daughter of a river god who was so pursued by Apollo that her father changed her into a laurel tree to escape him. (Just to make things confusing, daphne is the Greek name for the laurel, even though botanically daphne and laurels are not related.)
An evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub with pinkish-white to pink flowers, divine-smelling daphne can be grown in varied locales. However, all daphnes require semi-shade, well amended and fast-draining soil that retains enough moisture to prevent it from drying out completely, and a cover of mulch over their roots. During the dry season, irrigate infrequently, as restricted water increases flowering next spring. Daphnes do not require much pruning but may be tip pruned for shaping after flowers fade. Feed right after bloom with a complete fertilizer.
Daphnes are great as companion plants in an herbaceous border or as foundation plantings around a house. Because their flower scent is so intoxicating, they are a great choice for a walkway or a semi-shaded porch or deck. Their growth habit is slow to moderate; size among varieties varies from a low mat to shrubs that can reach 5 ft. tall. Most daphnes do not transplant well, so site the plant where it will live permanently. All parts of daphnes are poisonous and all are deer resistant.
Daphne odora (winter daphne) is an evergreen shrub with perhaps the most strongly scented flowers of all daphnes, as its species name suggests. It can sometimes display unpredictable behavior: It can flourish for years and then die without warning. Winter daphne is a very neat plant to 4 ft. high and wide with narrow, thick glossy green leaves and masses of fragrant flowers in late winter. ‘Aureo-Marginata’ is widely grown and has variegated leaves with cream-colored margins.
Daphne cneorum (garland daphne) is a pretty rock garden, front of a border, or pathway plant. It is evergreen and matting, less than 1 ft. high, with a spreading habit to 3 ft. wide. Trailing narrow glossy green branches are covered with fragrant spring blossoms. After bloom, top dress with compost or similar material to encourage additional rooting of stems. Cultivars include ‘Eximia,’ ‘Pgymaea Alba,’ and ‘Variegata.’
Daphne x burkwoodii is evergreen to semi-evergreen in Sonoma County. It develops into an attractive, well-formed shrub 3-4 ft. tall with narrow leaves. Blooms appear in spring and often repeat in late summer. ‘Carol Mackie’ is a variegated version, with a gold edge to green leaves.