How to grow daphnes

Val Bourne / 30 January 2017

Find out how to grow daphnes, beautifully scented flowering shrubs with long-lasting blooms.



Most daphnes are grown for their heady scent which drifts through the garden when the small flowers are fully out, so find them a sheltered site where the fragrance can linger.

Their flowers, which are formed by thick sepals, have an almost waxy appearance and can last for many weeks so they’re good garden value.

Berries may follow, but these are toxic, just like the rest of the plant. If you’re planning to raise plants from these berries, sow them as soon as they ripen.

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Where to plant

Positions vary - from scree, to woodland, to border. Daphnes vary in their needs because the 50 or so species are spread between Asia, North Africa and Europe. Some of the more diminutive daphnes flower in late-spring and they have an alpine tendency so do best on a sunny scree.

Those that flower in winter and early spring prefer a woodland site, whilst the summer-flowering daphnes are happiest in a more open position.

The one thing all daphnes need is good drainage, regardless of type, rather like their closest garden relatives garden thymes.

How to plant

Start with a pre-grown daphne. Plant in spring and mulch round the plant to keep the roots cool and the ground moist.

If you want to containerise a daphne keep the pot out of midday sun. Use a loam-based compost that won’t dry out so quickly, and add some grit. If planting outside the ideal is friable soil that does not become waterlogged, or too dry. Adding garden compost will make the soil airier and you can also mulch round daphnes in spring, when the soil is warm and damp.

Find a sheltered site away from wind on fertile soil that is well-drained.

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Variegated hybrid daphne, Daphnex Burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie

Variegated hybrid daphne, Daphnex Burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie

Pruning

Daphnes strongly resent pruning so don’t prune them.

In cold weather

If snow falls brush it away from the evergreens because they can split easily under the weight. Should the worst happen stake them back into position and bind them up with a bandage. First aid has saved several daphnes for me!

Daphnes dying suddenly

Daphnes don’t live forever and, when they’re time’s up, they’re likely to die rather quickly which can be distressing. This is the nature of the beast however, not you.

This capricious streak makes many difficult to propagate too. They root as cuttings, but often fade away once potted up, so generally they are in short supply in garden centres and nurseries. If you see a good daphne for sale, buy it there and then, although they are expensive.

Varieties

Native Daphnes

Daphne mezereum

Daphne mezereum

Daphne mezereum
The deciduous Daphne mezereum, a lover of lighter soil, has been a cottage garden favourite for centuries. Most have deep-pink flowers in spring, but there are white forms as well, and the flowers appear all the way up the stems before the foliage appears. Berries follow and can produce seedlings some way from the plant, having passed through a bird’s body. It was used medicinally to deaden toothache, so it was often planted close to the house. However don’t be tempted by the toothache remedy. All daphnes are toxic!

Daphne laureola

Daphne laureola

Daphne laureola
The shade-loving Daphne laureola is found in deep shade in woodlands close to my Gloucestershire home. It has magnificent dark-green rosettes that show up well in winter. The lime-green flowers appear with the snowdrops in my own garden. Although the flowers of D. laureola do not have a deliciously heady scent, just a light fragrance detectable on warm winter days. I value it for its winter foliage and early bee-friendly flowers.

Daphnes for winter scent

Daphne bholua
A Himalayan species of daphne, flowers in winter and it packs a powerful punch so this makes a good addition to any winter garden. It’s relatively recent, having been introduced in the second half of the 20th century. Plants collected at lower altitude have an evergreen tendency whilst those collected at higher altitudes tend to be deciduous and probably hardier too.

‘Darjeeling’, the first to Daphne bholua be named and mostly evergreen, can flower in November. Other good forms include ‘Gurkha’, which forms a tight head of pink flowers on bare wood.

The most widely available is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, an evergreen columnar daphne with cool-pink clusters of flower in midwinter. This came from a batch of seedlings grown from berries taken from ‘Gurkha’ at Hillier’s nursery. Their chief propagator, Alan Postill, selected the best and named it after his wife Jacqueline in 1982. 

It’s the hardiest evergreen form of D. bholua although it can shed foliage in harsh winters. It will look much more luxuriant in a sheltered position in dappled shade.

Daphne × transatlantica 'Eternal Fragrance'

Daphne × transatlantica 'Eternal Fragrance

The longest flowering daphnes

Daphne × transatlantica 'Eternal Fragrance' (‘Blafra')
This evergreen daphne is also widely available and it will produce a main flush of scented flowers in spring, followed by other flowers throughout summer. It’s very hardy too. Bred by Robin White, a daphne enthusiast who ran the sadly missed Blackthorn Nursery in Hampshire. Robin also named several after Hampshire villages, including ‘Meon’ and ‘Tichborne’ and generally these are late-spring daphnes suited to a sunny scree.

If you only grow one daphne...

A lot of daphnes are challenging to grow. However the highly fragrant, April-flowering, Chinese Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is easy in any sheltered, bright position on reasonably drained soil. This daphne makes a wide shrub, about a metre high, and will even grow on chalk and flower well although the foliage may look a little pinched. The variegated foliage is a tasteful olive-green edged in cream. When this daphne arrived at Kew in 1770 it was presumed to be a greenhouse plant but proved to be hardy outside. It strikes easily from cuttings too.

New, more-brashly variegated forms include ‘Geisha Girl’ and ‘Rebecca’, but they’ve proved much less vigorous for me and they’re not as hardy either.

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.