My winter daphne started blooming last week. It's a bit early (it usually blooms in February), but it has been a model of steadiness and dependability, filling the garden with its glorious aroma every winter since I planted it six and a half years ago. It will probably be dead next week.
If there were a high school year book for plants, winter daphne (Daphne odora in Latin) would win Most Likely to Drive Gardeners Crazy. Search the internet and see for yourself: blog posts, articles, and garden forums reveal gardeners tearing their hair out over the irrational and unpredictable behavior of this deceptively sweet plant.
Winter daphne is one of the most coveted plants for southern gardens (see Fairegarden's terrific, very comprehensive post on this plant for a thorough overview and great photos). It is a compact, evergreen shrub that is hardy from zones 7 through 9 (in contrast to Daphne x burkwoodii "Carol Mackie," which is much more cold hardy). The plant sports pretty, very fragrant pink flowers in winter or early spring. Their gorgeous aroma permeates the entire yard, and this, even more than the winter bloom time, is the plant's major selling point. Daphne odora has just one tiny flaw - an unfortunate tendency to drop dead with no warning.
Naturally, this does not sit well with gardeners. If you pride yourself on your gardening know-how, it can be a great blow to the ego when a prized plant expires without even having had the decency to warn you that it wasn't feeling well (root rot is the main culprit). Had you known, you might have been able to fix it, right?
Fear not. It wouldn't have made the slightest difference. Nor should you flatter yourself that you can prevent tragedy by meeting its every cultural requirement. Yes, if you ignore its demands -- filtered shade, superb drainage, no excess moisture -- it will succumb sooner. But if you plan to grow daphne, you must accept the fact that you can do everything right and still wake up one day to find yourself daphne-less.
If this sounds depressing, cheer up. Since there is no justice in the world, you can also bungle your way into rollicking success, as I did.
My daphne has been trouble free and thriving since I planted it as a novice gardener in July 2006. Reading up on daphne now, I discover to my amazement that it is ideally situated, in the filtered shade of several trees and on a slight slope. Am I a genius? Guess again. It was pure coincidence. I don't remember the exact circumstances, but I have a feeling that I was simply looking for a spot where I could get my trowel into the ground and not hit any tree roots.
In any case, I know better than to take credit for any success when it comes to daphne. It's all just a fluke. And since the JC Raulston Arboretum tells us that you can expect Daphne odora to last about 8 years under the best of circumstances, it looks as if I'll be daphne shopping very soon. Why shouldn't I? It blooms in winter, it smells great, and its fate is almost entirely out of your hands. It's the ultimate no-care plant.
You are one genius gardener to have this pretty plant so perfectly sited. It makes it all the more special to know this is a finicky plant and you have grown it well for so long. Some plants, like some people, are just there to break our hearts, but what rewards they give!!
1/27/2013 12:00:05 am
Better lucky than smart, as the saying goes! I think it is worth gambling on this one so you have something to cheer you up in the winter.
3/19/2014 08:05:13 pm
After reading comments I must say I am one of the lucky few. Planted 4 winter daphne 19 years ago. Lost the first one last year 2 of the last 3 have large dead sections. Do not expect them to be around much longer. They are currently in full bloom and smell so good. I just bought one new plant today. Hope it outlives me.
3/21/2014 04:02:18 am
Thanks so much for visiting and commenting on my blog. I am truly impressed by your 19 year run of Daphne. You may want to contact the Guiness Book of World Records!
1/26/2013 10:46:15 am
I had one - but it died. I won't try again, even though you make a pretty convincing argument that perhaps, if I tried again, I might get lucky. I hope yours lives long past the age of 8. It really is a wonderful plant.
1/27/2013 12:02:11 am
How long did yours survive? Luck seems to be the secret with this plant.
Oh, how lucky to have such a pretty plant blooming now! I have a butterfly bush cultivar that I keep waiting to spontaneously die on me (as I've heard it will), though so far so good. I hope your daphne lasts awhile longer! Did any of the blooms make it through the terrible weather we've had?
1/27/2013 12:03:50 am
Really? Which kind of butterfly bush? They don't have that reputation! So far, it looks as if all the blooms on my daphne survived the bad weather. I think most winter bloomers can take a little snow and ice, or they wouldn't be winter bloomers.
1/27/2013 12:33:41 am
I think ignorance really helps when it comes to daphne. If I had known more when I planted it, I probably wouldn't have taken the chance. More important, thank you so much for stopping by my blog. I have just discovered yours (where have I been?) and see that you are my neighbor in central NC. I am looking forward to following Sweetbay.
1/27/2013 12:35:15 am
Agreed. It's hard to give up the illusion of control, but it can be liberating.
1/27/2013 12:14:43 am
I have seen this plant around (not in my yard, of course) but never knew what it was. Too bad there isn't the Internet equivalent of smellerama so all your readers could enjoy its smell.
1/27/2013 12:36:52 am
Yes, many garden bloggers have also expressed a wish for smellerama or scratch and sniff for computers. It's probably coming soon, so just be patient.
I laughed at your high school year book descriptive. What a pretty little shrub! No wonder gardeners make themselves crazy trying to keep it going. Your daphne might be a success by chance this time round, but even a happy accident can have lessons to teach us.
2/1/2013 04:05:34 am
That's a great attitude. I think the lesson here is that we need to accept the fact that our power over the universe are limited, much as we'd like to think otherwise!
In my experience all Daphnes behave in this naughty fashion. D. 'Carol Mackie' died on me in stages. Finally I resorted to "pleuthansia". So far I have not replaced her.
2/2/2013 07:05:20 am
Pleuthanasia is a great term - I've committed it myself a few times but never knew that it had an official name! And thank you so much for stopping by the blog. It's given me a chance to discover your own blog, which I look forward to following. Anyone with a garden and a schnauzer is definitely someone I can relate to!
11/12/2013 02:00:22 pm
I have a Variegated Winter Daphne, last year it survived most of the winter and then we had a very cold spell and unfortunately all of the leaves turned brown and most of the leaves fell off. We did not get to see it bloom. All of the leaves came back over the summer and it now looks very healthy again. I just ordered a tree cover for it in case it gets really cold. We live in New Jersey. I have not been able to find a lot of information on the cold tolerance of this plant, I believe that they should be able to survive the winters in South Jersey, but last year was the first winter that we had the plant and it did not do very well. can anyone provide information on the cold tolerance and whether I should use the tree cover all winter or just when it gets below a certain temperature. Thanks
11/13/2013 12:36:44 am
Thanks for stopping by my blog, Kim. I'm no expert, but South Jersey sounds like it's pushing it for this plant. My guess is you should use the tree cover all winter and see if that works for you. Have you visited the site called Carolyn's Shade Garden? She's in Bryn Mawr, PA so fairly near South Jersey. She runs a nursery and might have information on whether Winter Daphne can survive in your area, and how you might best do that. I was surprised by many of the plants that make it there that I would never have thought could survive the cold. PS - my daphne is now at death's door, as predicted.
11/13/2013 09:44:19 am
Thanks for your information, I may look into the nursery that you mentioned. When we bought the plant we were told that it would survive the winters with no problem, they were obviously incorrect unless I am doing something wrong! I am hoping the tree cover works as I am looking forward to seeing this thing bloom! Thanks again!
1/3/2014 10:55:51 am
I live in North Raleigh and just stumbled on your blog as I was looking into whether to protect my daphne tonight. They are saying it will go down to 17 degrees, and mine is just full of blooms. I'm so sad yours died this fall:( Mine is also about 6 or 7 years old and very healthy. I hope it lasts awhile. But I've found them to be VERY easy to propagate, so I have several babies coming along. They bloom even when they are still just a little twig!
1/4/2014 01:31:05 am
Hi Lynn. I am so happy you found my blog. Thanks for visiting, and I do hope your Daphne made it through the cold night we just had. When mine was alive, the cold didn't bother it much, even when it was loaded with blooms, so I have high hopes for yours. I do wish I had the blooms to look forward to this year, and now that you've told me how easy they are to propagate, I may try again. No harm in trying, as long as you don't get too attached, right?
4/23/2014 05:30:25 am
My 20 year old daphne odora is blooming but it has very little foliage this year. It looks like it needs some help. Would you recommend a fertilizer or simply mixing in peat?
4/23/2014 02:00:51 pm
If your Daphne is 20 years old, then you are far more of a Daphne expert than I am! I am deeply impressed. Fertilizer or compost probably wouldn't hurt it, but I somehow doubt the problem is that since it is blooming fine - maybe it needs a little time to recover from the cold winter? Or was it not cold where you are? My advice - leave it alone and wait. I am very wary about interfering with Daphnes in any way.
5/31/2014 04:20:31 pm
Just thought I would let you know that my Daphne is looking wonderful. It has leafed out and only has a few bare branches. Your advise to wait was great. Thank you
6/1/2014 03:40:48 am
Better lucky than smart, is my motto. Glad it worked out.
5/29/2014 05:46:42 am
I managed to start one of these pictured Daphne some years ago from a cutting. It lived in a gallon pot for about 3 years, growing very slowly. Then I found an ideal spot (or so I thought) for it. It grew to nearly 2 feet tall in two years, then suddenly died.
5/31/2014 03:33:43 am
Thanks for you comments, and my apologies for the delay in responding. Unfortunately, I am not a propagating expert by any means. You sound as if you know more than I do. Try this link - it may help you get started on your search for more information on propagation, etc.
1/8/2015 01:16:12 am
Oh Daphne, I knew ye well!
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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