Daphne odora is one of the most cherished plants for the winter garden. It has been cultivated in China and Japan since ancient times and its native distribution is now obscure. It is the most common garden member of the Thymelaeaceae, others occasionally encountered include Edgeworthia, Stellera, Wikstroemia, and the native Dirca. The genus Daphne includes about 100 species of both evergreen and deciduous species and ranges over a wide area from Asia to northern Africa and Europe. It derives its name from the Roman myth of the nymph Daphne. Daphne would not return Apollo's affections and eventually turned into a laurel tree to escape his pursuit.
Winter daphne as Daphne odora is commonly known makes a low evergreen shrub 3–4 feet tall and wide. The dark green lanceolate leaves make a perfect backdrop for the late winter flowers opening in February or March and often lasting well into April. The typical flower color is pale pink to rose. Red fruits are sometimes produced but are poisonous. The stems, although hidden, are an attractive smooth, purplish-brown.
Despite its year round beauty, winter daphne is grown mainly for its extremely fragrant flowers. The winter blossoms scent the entire garden with the aroma wafting dozens of feet away from the plant. Presumably the far spreading odor must attract some of the few pollinators active during winter. The scent is described in various ways but the lemony fragrance is reminiscent of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) to me. Flowers are generally pale rose but can be pure white in some selections. The thick textured sepals (daphne have no true petals) last for a relatively long period during the cool weather when they flower and so extend the show over a long period.
Winter daphne is commonly sold as a shrub for shade and will definitely need protection from the harshest afternoon sun. Daphne needs very well-drained soil and will not last long in heavy red clay. Like the nymph, Daphne often spurns even the most talented gardener. In the best of conditions it is relatively short lived, rarely lasting more than 8 years and often dying in half that time. Winter daphne does have the decency to usually die quickly instead of lingering for years. Despite its fickle nature, the outstanding form and heavenly fragrance earn it a spot in the garden and regular replacement. Propagation of Daphne odora is by softwood or semi-hardwood cuttings taken from June through September or hardwood cuttings from dormant plants. Semi-hardwood cuttings can be rooted under mist while dormant material is best with bottom heat.
Perhaps more commonly encountered than the species is the cultivar 'Aureovariegata' with a thin creamy yellow margin around each leaf. Look for it in the model gardens at the JCRA. One of our new favorites is 'Zuiko Nishiki', a green foliaged form that is heavier flowering than the species, more fragrant, and reputedly hardier which is growing in the Xeric Garden. Other cultivars include ‘Maejima’ with broad, even, creamy yellow margins, ‘Nakafu’ with the unusual variegation of pale green surrounded by yellow then edged with green. Perhaps the most elegant and easiest to use in the landscape is the white flowered forma alba. Whichever daphne you choose, you are sure to be entranced with its many charms and delightful fragrance.