Absentee gardeners

A Daphne odora in bloom.

Sometimes I think that daphnes take all the fun out of gardening. There can hardly be a gardener alive who hasn’t lusted in their heart for a Daphne odora in the middle of winter. The luscious blooms coupled with a delicious scent manage to enchant us during the month of January. Likewise, the lovely early spring blooms of D. genkwa send quivering spasms in our hearts as we await spring.

However, daphnes have a downside: Typically, they seem determined to die after accepting our hospitality for a couple of years. Horticulturalists at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens have all assured me that their daphnes die with great regularity, that I shouldn’t take it personally. The mantra for growing daphnes appears to be: Enjoy them today as tomorrow they will be gone. So, the question must be asked, why do we gardeners even bother to try to grow them?

While there are lots of daphne species, there are only two that you will probably run across: Daphne odora, hardy in zones 7-9 and Daphne genkwa, hardy in zones 5b-7a. Named for the Greek nymph who turned into a laurel in order to escape Apollo’s clutches, all daphnes are poisonous – this is not a genus to plant when the household contains young children and chewing pets.

As it isn’t related to the laurel, we have to ask, what makes a daphne a daphne? All daphnes are poisonous shrubs, but that’s where the similarities end. Some are evergreen, some are semi-evergreen, while others are deciduous. Some have alternating leaves on the stem. The flowers and flower color vary widely although all have eight stamens arranged in two groups of four.

Just as it’s hard to define a daphne, it’s equally hard to determine what a daphne wants. Here are the few things experts agree about daphnes:

  • Daphnes need well-draining soil that retains moisture. They don’t respond well to clay soils that retain water and sandy soils that flush water out quickly. In fact, Daphne success benefits from adding compost to the soil, giving us another reason to compost.
  • Daphnes are fussy about their pH. They want a “mildly” acidic soil as they show signs of chlorosis in alkaline soils. However, if the soil is below 5.5, you will need to apply lime.
  • Daphne odora, even in zone 7, will need some winter protection so consider planting it next to a stone wall that absorbs some heat from the winter sun. The sad truth is that Daphne odora does not like to remain frozen for even a couple of days. If this is a problem for you, plant D. genkwa as it’s cold hardier.
  • Daphnes respond to an occasional feeding.

I realize that this is not very helpful information. Essentially it boils down to this:

1. Don’t overwater your daphne, but don’t underwater it either;

2. Place it in the sun, but not too much sun.

3. Feed it some fertilizer, but don’t overfeed it.

4. Try to have a pH reading somewhere between 6.5-5.5.

A neighbor, a talented propagator of D. odora, has established a row of daphnes on a small incline overlooking the quiet neighborhood street. The height provides drainage and while the line of daphnes is in the sun, come late afternoon the neighboring trees provide the row with some shade. Two out of the nine specimens have died over the course of five years, but otherwise his luck has held out. To have seven daphnes survive for five years demonstrates that they are remarkably happy daphnes.

My experience with both species of daphne has been the opposite. D. odora managed to hang in there for 1½ years whereas D. genkwa was unhappy from the beginning. Now when a daphne urge hits me, I simply walk by my neighbor’s row to admire his daphnes – my hat is off to anyone who can grow this troublesome shrub.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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