An affair of the heart (and nose)
I’m having a love affair. Yes, my wife knows all about it, but she just makes a face and says something about, “You men!” and “… chasing after the first pretty face that comes along.”
And my new love isn’t just pretty – she smells good too. Our grandson, Walker, says she “smells like Fruit Loops,” which is just about the highest commendation a 5-year-old can give. His more discerning 7-year-old sister, Natalie, insists the fragrance is “like lemon candy.”
If you were an Olympic ice skating judge, this is the equivalent of a 6.0 rating.
The name of my love is Daphne odora, but her admirers sometimes add another name: aureo-marginata. She’s somewhat small at present and might even be overlooked in a crowd, but her fragrance stops visitors in their tracks. Typical comment: “Where is that HEAVENLY aroma coming from?”
OK, you guessed it. My love is an evergreen shrub commonly called “Winter Daphne” that’s been an outstanding performer in our shade garden. Above those handsome green leaves edged in yellow rests a purple-pink and white blossom that looks like a tiny bridal bouquet.
I’ve been looking around for more information on this particular plant and have learned that it originated in western China, although there are relatives in Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. Records show it was making an impression on historians as far back as the Sung dynasty, 960-1279 AD.
According to the authoritative Sunset Western Garden Book, Daphne is as temperamental as it is beautiful: “It can die despite the most attentive care, or flourish with little attention until you invite all your garden friends over to admire it, at which point it promptly succumbs without warning just to show you who’s in charge.”
That observation is endorsed by our son-in-law, who was enchanted by the plant on the path to our door and bought one for the sandy soil of his home in the Sunset district in San Francisco.
“It’s barely holding on,” he sighs. “I’ve got it planted in shade, and will try to move it across the yard for some more sun and see what happens.”
Horticulturists recommend planting Daphne in porous soil, like rhododendrons, and setting the plant a bit high with the juncture of the roots and stems an inch or so above soil level.
The location, particularly in Nevada County, should allow the plant about three hours of shade at midday. And water sparingly in summer. This is supposed to encourage more flowers the following spring.
Although I’m not familiar with them, there are several other types of Daphne for the home landscape: Garland Daphne, an excellent rock garden plant with a matting and spreading habit; Lilac Daphne, a deciduous plant that shows off foot-long wands of lilac-colored (scentless) flowers; February Daphne, which is best planted in groups for maximum effect and has fragrant reddish-purple flowers; and Daphne burkwoodii, whose fragrant white flowers fade to pink in spring and summer. There are several named varieties of D. burkwoodii to select from.
The plants can be pruned and will even tolerate heavy pruning, but other than that, only occasional pinching for shape will suffice.
One of the secrets these fragrant beauties conceal, however, is that they are poisonous when eaten, although one British horticulturist reported that sheep continually browse on his without any obvious ill effects.
So if you use it to dress up a dinner plate, please warn your guests that it doesn’t taste as good as it smells.
Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, Master Gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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