Fragrant Winter Daphne

Close of Winter Daphne flowers
Daphne bholua   © Karen Netto (Andrews) 

The delicate fragrance of a Daphne wafts into the cold winter air. It has the ability to stop passers-by in their tracks. It calls out for attention whether planted in a winter garden or in an urban landscape. Can such a sweet fragrance really be coming from such a small, seemingly delicate flower on a bare stem? The passer-by sniffs the flower to check and, much surprised, concludes that it is indeed so.

The popular Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline_Postill’ in Cambridge University Botanic Garden
Photo Credit: Magnus Manske [CC BY-SA 3.0 viaWikimedia Commons]

Thymelaeaceae Family

Daphne is a genus of 50-98 species (depending on source) in the Thymelaeaceae or Mezereon family. There is disagreement between taxonomists as to the status of Chinese species. While Thymelaeaceae is a cosmopolitan family, Daphnes are confined to the Northern hemisphere. They are mainly found in Europe and temperate and subtropical parts of Asia.

Mythological Connection and Confusion

Daphne was a nymph in Greek mythology. She was changed into a tree in order to escape the amorous attentions of the god Apollo. Greek gods were notorious for such behaviour. The Ancient Greeks knew Laurus nobilis, the Bay Tree, as Daphne. They used its foliage to make winners’ wreaths in sports’ contests. Bay leaves are used in cooking today. The mythological confusion illustrates one of the modern-day dilemmas caused by inconsistent plant names, misidentification or failure to identify at all (e.g. green, foliage or house plant).

Medicinal Plant

The Ancient Greeks used Daphne gnidium for its medicinal properties. Seventeenth century herbalists used Daphne mezereum, Daphne laureola and Daphne gnidium in their treatments. All these plants are poisonous, as are many medicinal plants if taken outside prescribed doses.

Fruit and leaves of Daphne mezereum – a native species with protected status
Photo Credit: Veli pohjonen via Wikimedia Commons 

Information about Poisonous Plants

Modern-day plant blindness and ignorance create an issue about how to inform the general public on poisonous plants. Brand a plant poisonous without any nuanced information and you may cause an overreaction ultimately leading to the rarity, and even extinction, of a beautiful and valuable plant for biodiversity and medicine.

Garden centres, nurseries and other retailers fear that they will leave themselves open to potential legal action if they fail to inform the general public of a risk. Recent deaths and legal action over poor labelling of allergenic ingredients in foods highlight the issue. Blanket bans restrict access to medicinal products as illustrated by the recent Cannabis oil row with the Home Office over epilepsy treatments. Common sense has to prevail.

Tackling Plant Blindness

A Nanny State is not the answer. A return to greater plant knowledge and appreciation within the general public seems the better, if a more long-term option. There is a lot of scaremongering, along with inaccurate advice and plant identifications online. Authoritative resources are important particularly for those with young children and pets in gardens. Caution also has to be exercised in giving too much explicit information that might be misused. 

Yes, all parts of Daphnes can be toxic if eaten and the sap can be an irritant. All fruits should be treated as poisonous to livestock and humans. Ingestion on a large scale is unlikely. Daphne mezereum causes a very unpleasant choking sensation. Daphne fruits are likely to be spat out quickly because they taste bitter and cause a burning sensation in the mouth. Plants have their own natural, in-built defences.

For the Experienced Enthusiast only?

Daphne has a reputation as being somewhat unpredictable and prone to diseases. These shrubs can be highly rewarding at a time of little seasonal interest for the experienced and responsible gardener. The fragrance is a major attraction. The perfume increases towards evening, indicating that moths are the main pollinators. Many species are self-fertile. 

Range of Colours

According to expert Robin White in Daphnes: A Practical Guide for Gardeners, Daphnes can be in flower every month of the year. The shrub is primarily known for its ability to cheer up the winter garden. The exquisitely small flowers appear in terminal clusters in a range of creams, pinks, lilacs and rosy purples. There are even yellow and green flowers. (A selection of examples appear in the photo gallery at the bottom of this blog).

Climate Responsive

White observes that the intensity of the flower colours varies from year to year, and even within a single growing season, in response to temperature and sunlight intensity. The flowers turn paler or darken with age.

Daphne bholua in the Wild

Daphne bholua is one of the most common shrubs sold in the UK, along with its various cultivars. It is one of the hardier Himalayan species. It grows in woodland and is subject to heavy monsoon rains in the wild. Its seeds have only a short viability. They are ‘programmed’ to germinate rapidly to take advantage of the monsoon rains. The seedlings grow quickly in strength before the dry, cold winter sets in.

Daphne bholua in Cultivation

Daphne bholua needs a steady supply of water during its growing season. It is not overly concerned about the pH of its soil. It does not like shallow chalky or light sandy soils which dry out in the summer. It needs protection from the midday sun and shelter from strong winds.

It is perfectly normal for the shrub to drop most of its older leaves after flowering, before new growth starts. It does not like the first sudden frost of winter. It fares better with a gradual drop in temperature. Frost can damage buds, but open inflorescences cope better with low temperatures. Hardier cultivars can tolerate temperatures down to -17ºC.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’

The best-known cultivar is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ (shown above). It was bred at the Hillier Arboretum (Sir Harold Hillier Gardens) by Alan Postill and named after his wife Jacqueline. It has gained favour as the hardiest evergreen Daphne in cultivation.

Gallery of Colours

Daphne blagayana 
Photo Credit: xulescu_g via Flickr

Copyright Note 

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

These pages illustrate my love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. I love sharing. This blog is a showcase for my own photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics.

© Karen Netto (Andrews) 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Netto (Andrews) and karencommunications.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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