Our last two posts have highlighted sweetly-scented winter bloomers, sarcococca (sweet box) and hamamelis (witch hazel). To continue with our winter fragrance theme, let’s talk about daphne odora, or winter daphne. Often placed near doorways and walkways, the jasmine-like scent of this lovely shrub wafts from Pacific Northwest gardens from late January through March.
Native to China, the shrub is known for its highly perfumed white, pink or lavender tubular flowers. The form of winter daphne is open and airy, with a superb architectural shape all its own. The foliage is shiny green, and variegated in some cultivars. Most daphnes are evergreen, but there are some semi-evergreen and deciduous varieties.
Daphne has a bit of a reputation as a finicky girl, but show her the forethought and attention she deserves, and she’ll strive to please. Poor drainage will be the death of daphne, so place the root ball high in the soil at planting, and amend with organic, humus-type materials such as coarse bark. D. odora does not tolerate too much summer water as this can lead to root rot. Locate daphne where it will get afternoon shade, or dappled shade all day, and where it will have plenty of room to reach maturity without being crowded by other plants—daphne does not like to be disturbed once it settles in. Winter daphne benefits from a soil-cooling ground cover as a companion plant. Be sure to plant companion groundcover with the shrub to avoid disturbing the daphne's roots once it's established.
The variegated form ‘Aureomarginata’ is probably the most well-known and widely available cultivar, but it is by no means the only daphne available. This article (PDF) from Oregon garden writer Elizabeth Petersen details some fabulous varieties, as well as more tips to help your daphne thrive.
Daphne might sound fussy, but when planted where drainage is great and soil is rich in humus, it can thrive for 8-10 years. Although relatively short-lived and requiring a little extra care at planting, its heavenly fragrance is well worth the effort.
West Seattle resident Patty J Campbell is a botanist and garden authority with forty years experience in Western Washington landscapes.