I am blessed with the scent of this beautiful plant – drifting across the nursery and Siren-like, it calls to me so that I can breathe in more of this delicious fragrance. Sweet, honeyed, hints of lily and jasmine, citrus, intense but not cloying. Fleeting too on the breeze, caught and then lost again. I really really like this plant.
Deep green lanceolate leaves, rimmed with a flash of golden – sometimes more – edging. Other forms have a greater variegation (I have Rebecca in a pot by my front door and the overall effect is gold rather than green, being half and half) while Mae-jima is a triumph of the bright yellow over any vestiges of the green.
Happy in full sun or partial shade, it is a slow-growing thing, reaching a height and spread of up to 1.5m. They are expensive – propagation is akin to voodoo and fiendishly difficult. Once planted they hate being moved so ensure you have the right spot before planting one out. A decent sized pot with some good John Innes compost might be just the thing.
Daphne odora: How to grow
Helen Yemm on a winter plant that can fill a room with perfume
CLOSE your eyes and picture summer flowers, autumn berries or leaf shapes and colours; project them on to the back of your eyelids and imagine them almost into existence. Gardeners do this all the time – it is how we plot and plan.
But conjuring up smells is altogether harder. And at this time of year, with the tiny buds of my Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ sitting pink, pointed, poised and tantalisingly shut for another couple of weeks, I get very impatient. Every time I pass it (I have a plant by the path to my kitchen door), I scrunch hopefully towards the unassuming little evergreen shrub, breathing in deeply in case just one tiny flower is valiantly jumping the gun.
Daphne odora is one of the earliest and, I think, one of the most intense joys of a spring garden. I favour the slightly hardier D. odora ‘Aureomarginata’, which has narrowly oval leaves lightly and irregularly edged in gold. When not in flower, Daphne odora is a fairly ordinary-looking shrub. Variegation gives it another role to play for the rest of the year, albeit a discreet one.
This daphne is a slow mover and, like all slow movers, resents disturbance. A cutting given to me by my father more than 10 years ago is still only 3ft high and barely as wide. Admittedly it was uprooted from its London home in high summer when we moved house, then spent several miserable months in a pot. So for two of its 10 years it sulked, and even refused to flower. During the month that it is in bloom, I can’t resist snipping off many of its flowers and bringing them indoors, where their fragrance intensifies in the warmth. Two or three little sprigs of daphne tucked into a tiny vase will fill a room and have the occupants hunting around for the source of such a sweet, heady, jasmine-like perfume.
Daphne odora is an un-showy member of an illustrious family, some of whose members are evergreen, others deciduous, many of them from south-eastern Europe and Asia Minor. Well-known relations are the more dramatic D. mezereum, which has deeper pink flowers that appear on naked stems in early spring; D. x burkwoodii; the later flowering Daphne retusa; and shade-lover D. pontica, which has creamy-green flowers. But it is the subtlety of this early-bird daphne – a native of China and Japan – that I love. As with that other scented winter flowerer, Eleagnus x ebbingei, you smell it before you notice it – so the pleasure is even more intriguing.
Low, slow shrubs such as Daphne odora are not suitable for a crowded, mixed border where they can get pushed about by more exuberant bedfellows. I favour planting daphnes as part of an area of mixed scented evergreens in a woodland garden, perhaps with fellow smellies such as Eleagnus ebbingii, skimmias and sarcococcas to give a succession of pleasures to the nose for most of the winter. If the site has winter sun, so much the better and it should be an area you pass by regularly at this time of year. Daphne odora is not just a plant for big gardens. I have seen Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ growing valiantly in a tiny London front garden, flowering its socks off – to the delight of passers-by who catch its sweet fragrance.
Daphne odora is a slightly tender evergreen, surviving best in the south and west of Britain. Soil pH is not important, but all daphnes dislike heavy clay and winter waterlogging, and prefer soil that is free-draining and rich in humus. A leafy annual mulch is beneficial. Though not suited to containers, it will do fine in light shade and grows well in a woodland garden. Daphne odora is never cheap, presumably because it grows slowly, and care after planting involves patience. By cutting sprigs off as it flowers, you are doing all the pruning required.
These double primulas have come in to cheer us up, bright and with something of a wavy sweet pea about them methinks. Single primroses are about, with a simple charm, if these are a mite too brash.
– and moving on through today’s beauty parade, another of my very favourite plants, Edgeworthia chrysantha, flower buds resembling the neatest felted-grey buttons with just the merest hint of the golden Sputnik flowers they are to become as they open out into little bright spheres.
How to grow: Edgeworthia chrysantha
Of all the plants grown in British gardens – it has been calculated that there are, incredibly, 90,000 different species and cultivars sold here – there can be little doubt that those originating from China and the Himalayas are among the most desirable.
The reasons are obvious yet complex. Stunningly beautiful on the one hand, often frustratingly tricky to cultivate on the other, these tend to be plants for the more adept gardener. Edgeworthia chrysantha is one such, rewarding good soil cultivation and careful placement with beautifully fragrant blooms from winter to early spring.
E. chrysantha is a medium-sized deciduous shrub, about 5ft by 5ft, with papery, cinnamon-coloured bark: one of the plant’s synonyms, E. papyrifera, celebrates the use of this bark in the manufacture of high-quality paper for Japanese banknotes. It also has incredibly flexible young stems that can, literally, be tied in knots. Its crowning glory is the clusters of fragrant, tubular yellow flowers, borne in spherical heads 1.5in to 2in across and covered in silky white hairs that make them look frosted when in bud.
Heavily fragrant flowers are a common adaptation of plants that need to entice the few pollinating insects around in the colder months and E. chrysantha does not disappoint either insect or gardener. But this is not a plant for very cold and frosty gardens. Preferring full sun or lightly dappled shade, it is hardy only to about -5C to -7C.
E. chrysantha is the only commonly cultivated plant from a tiny genus of just three species, related to daphnes. The generic name commemorates Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, one of those redoubtable Victorian amateur botanists who combined colonial service with a passion for plant hunting. He collected E. chrysantha in the Himalayas while in the service of the East India Company and it was introduced to British gardeners in the mid-1800s.
Not everyone will be able to grow E. chrysantha, which adds to its allure, but such a winter-flowering gem is well worth a try and forms a great conversation piece for those who really love their plants.
How to grow
Moist but well-drained humus-rich, loamy soil – the Holy Grail of garden soils – is what Edgeworthia chrysantha needs. It also needs a fairly sheltered spot. If these requirements are met it can be grown in gardens where winter frosts are common. At Rosemoor, the RHS Garden in Devon, a couple of specimens are doing very nicely in the gully underpass connecting the two halves of the garden. Here they have just the right amount of shelter, despite being in a notorious frost pocket. A south- or west-facing wall will also suit, although regular irrigation will be necessary in hotter positions.
Where hard frosts are not a problem E. chrysantha can be grown at the edge of a woodland garden or in a mixed border. Improving the soil with leaf litter, grit and garden compost is vital. If growing it outdoors isn’t viable, it is happy in a cool greenhouse with regular watering and a monthly feed of liquid fertiliser during the growing season.
E. chrysantha can be propagated from seed, sown in pots in a cold frame in autumn, or by striking semi-ripe cuttings in summer. Pests and diseases are not a problem.
At a woodland edge, E. chrysantha will associate well with early spring bulbs, including snowdrops and naturalised drifts of crocus such as C. x luteus ‘Dutch Yellow’ and the robust C. tommasinianus . A winter border of flowering shrubs would also be a good home, alongside the white-flowered Abeliophyllum distichum , the white forsythia, the pale pink Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ and the evergreen Mahonia japonica . Early perennials such as Helleborus foetidus and Pulmonaria ‘Mawson’s Blue’, with the woodland grass Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldgehänge’ will form an attractive under-story to this type of winter planting.
E. chrysantha is also suitable for a sheltered mixed shrub and perennial border, where it will provide welcome early colour and fragrance.
There is life in the Cutting Garden – very likely this will stall if temperatures fall but definitely hints of spring here, even in the middle of January. The Almond blossom is a bit of a surprise – this is a self-fertile variety called Princess – but how lovely to have blossom on the 16th January.