Daphne odora has been aptly called a Siren of the plant world.
Like the Sirens of Greek mythology who used music and song to lure sailors to their island where the ships wrecked on the rocky coastline, Daphne odora is a temptress who seduces gardeners with her sweetly-perfumed fragrance.
She shows up on nursery store benches in January and February when little else is in flower, which only adds to her appeal.
As many a gardener has found out, the combination is often a fatal attraction.
The challenge is to keep her happy … and alive.
“Daphnes across the board are fickle,” said Michael Dirr, retired professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia and author of 12 books, many of which have become standard references for plant enthusiasts. “They wither and die almost overnight.” Even he admits that “I have lost many over the years.”
“Their root systems are stringy and do not respond well to transplanting or disturbance,” Dirr said.
“Excellent drainage and lime-based soil (a ‘sweet’ planting medium) serve them best.”
Still, “it’s a crap shoot,” he added.
Amanda Campbell, manager of display gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, expressed a similar sentiment.
“The familiar up-and-dies of Daphne odora … are probably the most common complaint and problem with (this species),” she said.
She noted that the best start gardeners can give Daphne odora is to choose a site that has partial shade and plant them in a slightly elevated mound in well-draining soil. After that, she advised, don’t fuss over them and don’t over water — err on the side of keeping them a little dry. Mulch also seems to be at the top of their list to be happy, she added.
Above all else, she said in echoing Dirr, don’t move them. “They will typically quickly die after being transplanted.
“It’s establishment that’s the trick,” she said. “Once they’re established, they’re really very tough, hardy plants.”
“Ironically, if one is planted in a suitable spot, they can last for years, are relatively care free, and have some drought tolerance,” she said.
For gardeners who have small spaces, such as those in apartments or condominiums, Daphne odora can also do fine in pots. Just be sure to move the pot to a garage or other location during hard freezes, Campbell cautioned, because it’s important that the soil in the pot doesn’t freeze.
Daphne odora also has the advantage of being somewhat deer-resistant because it has thick leaves. “Deer tend to like plants with softer textures — though, they’ll eat virtually anything when they feel like it,” Campbell said.
Old plants exist
Even with her finicky nature, old plants of Daphne odora do exist, Dirr said.
The Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga., for example, has two specimen-sized Daphne odoras that were planted in one of their woodland gardens in 1992 and 1993.
For those who may have tried to grow Daphne odora and keep seeing the plants perish, Dirr pointed out that there is a relatively new hybrid Daphne on the market (daphne x transatlantica 'Eternal Fragrance' ) that he says is more adaptable to garden culture than most other Daphnes.
Unlike the winter-flowering Daphne odora, ‘Eternal Fragrance’ blooms in April and May on the previous season's wood and from June until fall on new growth.
But for those who can’t resist the sweet perfume of Daphne odora in the winter garden, just be aware that if it dies quickly and without warning its demise may not be because of anything you did – or didn’t do.
“That’s the price of doing business with this Siren,” Campbell said.
For your bookshelf or e-reader: "Daphnes: A Practical Guide for Gardeners," by Robin White. Robin White is a nurseryman with more than 30 years of experience in growing and breeding Daphnes. 224 pages, 160 color photographs. Timber Press. 2006
Have other tips for how to grow Daphne odora? Leave us a note in the comments below.