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.
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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