arhs Yachts International
arhs Yachts International

The Genus Daphne

By James Ellison

Originally published October 1993

The genus Daphne comprises about 50 species of deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen shrubs. Many are Spring flowering and have deliciously fragrant flowers usually white, pink or purple with the exception of a couple, having greenish-yellow or yellow inflorescenses. They range in size from low growing ground huggers, only a few inches high, to significant shrubs. Most are natives of Asia, Europe and Africa.

February Daphne (Daphne mezereum L.) is the well-known shrub with which most people associate the genus. This is an exceedingly hardy shrub that flowers on the previous year’s wood. Flowering occurs in February – March in Europe (hence the name) but usually waits until late April in Nova Scotia. The flowers are purple in color, heavily perfumed, and borne on leafless stems. The foliage that soon follows is glaucous green and is held late in the season. The fruit produced, is 1/3″ in diameter, bright red and very ornamental. However it is very poisonous, so one must carefully select a planting site. The berries can also be picked off as a precaution. The flower buds are plump, shiny and dark, and especially noticeable in Winter. One can sacrifice a bit of the Spring bloom by cutting some of the floral shoots and forcing them indoors. Introduced by the French settlers, this plant in now a native of NS and is scattered throughout the province.

There are various cultivars of the February Daphne; Daphne mezereum f. ‘Alba’ is a white flowering form that is more upright than the species and can grow up to 5′ plus. The fruit on this cultivar is a translucent yellow – orange. Daphne mezereum ‘Alpina’ is a semi-prostrate form that hails from Jack Drake’s Alpine Nursery in Scotland. It is, indeed, a very interesting plant which is very slow growing and eventually forms a gnarled compact shrub. Flowers, similar to the species, are produced in the Spring. Both of these cultivars will come true from seed. A couple more cultivars of D. mezereum that are worthy of mention, are D. mezereum ‘Paul’s White’, and ‘Bowles White’, which are similar to D mezereum f. ‘alba’. D. mezereum var. ‘rubra’, is a deep red-purple form that is very appealing. D. mezereum ‘Autumnalis’, according to Dirr (1983), is similar to the species but as the name suggests, flowers in the Autumn. February Daphne is very easy to raise from seed and one can find plenty of seedlings under a good-sized parent plant. These can be transplanted successfully at this stage to a more permanent location in the garden.

Another fine species that performs well in this province is Daphne cneorum (nee-or um) also known as Rose or Garland Daphne. This is a choice evergreen species that looks especially nice in a rockery but mixes well in a foundation planting. This gem will only get 1 1/2′ – 2′ high and 3′ wide.

Small fragrant pink flowers are produced on terminal shoots in the Spring. The plant is literally smothered in a mass of pink. This plant is a native to Europe and does very well in NS surviving in the colder areas of the province like Truro and Antigonish where it can handle -30′ C. It will benefit from a mulch of boughs and is not particularly fond of desiccating winds. This Daphne can manage a bit of shade and prefers having its root zone mulched.

There is a hybrid between D. cneorum and D. caucasia called Daphne x Burkwoodii. From this cross comes a couple of named clones; D. x Burkwoodii ‘Somerset’and ‘Albert Burkwood’. Both plants are semi-evergreen and bear pale pink, fragrant flowers in the Spring. ‘Somerset’ is slightly larger. D. x Burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ is a variegated form and in my opinion, one of the finest all around shrubs to hit the landscape industry. The foliage is the key attraction for this gem. The handsomely arranged leaves are enhanced with a creamy yellow margin that is very noticeable especially when grown in the shade or against some sort of contrasting element. The leaves are held late in the season so that the plant still looks striking into late November – early December. Fragrant pale pink flowers appear in May on the terminal shoots. ‘Carol Mackie’ is a very hardy cultivar and can handle very low temperatures indeed. There is a nice specimen growing at the N.S. Agricultural College in Truro in almost full shade and showed little if any damage after last winter. This plant can be propagated by cuttings taken in late Summer or early Autumn. Occasionally the plant produces shoots with green leaves. Most variegated plants do this from time to time. Remove these at once so that the cultivar does not revert back to its original green form. I have rooted the green sports with little difficulty. These plants make nice companion plants for the variegated cultivar and add that contrasting element.

Daphnes are notorious for being difficult to grow. This is only partly true. Some of the species can be very fastidious about their growing conditions most prefer a well-drained, moist, fertile growing medium. Many seem to enjoy even alkaline conditions but the species and cultivars previously mentioned seem to be very content in our Maritime soils. There is one thing that most species of Daphne have in common, they detest being moved. When one acquires a Daphne, a permanent place in the garden should be selected before the shrub is planted. I have seen D. mezereum moved very carefully early in the spring with most of its root system intact, leafing out normally and then dying the following season for no apparent reason. D. mezereum will some times fail for no obvious reason, this according to Dirr (1983) may be related to a little known virus. I personally haven’t had problems growing D. mezereum. The Daphnes make great specimen plants and combine well with other shrubs with similar cultural requirements.

This is a wonderful genus of plants that is seldom offered in the industry and are deserving of a place in the garden.