28 August 2012

The three rules to growing daphnes

 Gorgeous evergreen foliage, often a dark green so glossy it rivals hollies and puts boxwoods to absolute shame, profuse fragrant flowers in spring that put on encore performances through the summer, and growth habits ranging from big 3-4 foot shrubs to tiny compact mounds less than a foot tall. Daphnes are basically amazing, and you need some. Here's the three things you need to know about enjoying them in your garden.
'Audrey Vochins' is one classy lady.
Rule number 1: Ignore everything the British say.
This is a good general rule for any sort of gardening in the US because our climate is so radically different, but it applies particularly to daphnes. The definitive book on daphnes is by Robin White, a British gentleman who claims that many of the species we grow are tender and require an alpine house to survive winter. Yeah... Come to Arrowhead sometime, and I'll show you massive 20 some year old bushes of all sorts of daphnes that have sailed as happily as can be through many a brutal Michigan winter. I'm not sure if it is the misty-moisty British weather they hate, or the lack of summer heat that doesn't allow them to fully harden their new growth before winter, but whatever the reason, daphnes really seem to prefer our climate to that of England, and are much tougher, hardier, more reliable plants than you've probably been lead to believe.
D. xhendersonii 'Fritz Kummert' as cute as a button with a smattering of summer reblooms
Rule number 2: Drainage, drainage, drainage.
Daphnes hate wet feet. Loath it, as it opens them up for attack by their one nemesis. Daphnes are generally stunningly pest and disease resistant, I've never seen any sort of insect munching on them, deer and rabbits ignore them, and never does a speck of mildew or rust or any other sort of fungus mar their leaves. Their one weakness, however, is a root rot called phytopthora. It is usually a problem on heavy wet soils and when it shows up infected plants up and die dramatically almost overnight. The solution is simple: drainage. If you have sandy soil, as we do at Arrowhead, you can grow daphnes anywhere. If not, a raised bed of sand or a rock garden will grow happy daphnes even if your soil is the thickest clay. Then all you have to do is resist the urge to over-water them. At Arrowhead, we never water the daphnes in the garden, and they never seem to mind. Even during this brutally hot, dry summer when the toughest plants were dropping like flies, the daphnes sailed through rainless weeks of temperatures reaching 100 without batting an eye.
Other than drainage, daphnes aren't too picky. Full sun is best, though they'll take part shade (expect fewer flowers), and they are one of those happy plants that grows on acid or alkaline soils.
D. burkwoodii NOT aging gracefully
Rule number 3: Don't plant 'Carol Mackie'
My love of daphnes was severely hindered by the fact that until I started spending time at Arrowhead, the only daphne I'd seen was the variegated cultivar of D. burkwoodii, 'Carol Mackie'. Problem is, Carol is one trashy lady. Where most daphnes have an elegant, tight growth habit, she, and the other D. burkwoodii cultivars get tall and leggy and then flop in a most repulsive, unladylike fashion. Though the spring flower display is nice, rebloom is marginal to non-existent.
Variegated D. burkwoodii cultivars looking pretty darn nice
To be honest, D. burkwoodii isn't ALL bad. The front walk to Brigitta's house is lined with several of them and they look stunning. But though they have their place, they're far from the best of this exquisite genus, so put off Carol and the rest of her ilk, start with some of these:

D. xhendsersonii loaded with blooms... again!
D. xhendersonii
This hybrid grex is my hands-down favorite group. Fragrant, great rebloom on most varieties in the summer, and the best growth habit. You could sheer your favorite boxwood every other day and never get a the perfect, tight little dome of leaves that a xhendersonii will produce without you doing a thing, AND the leaves will look better and never show a speck of insect damage.
Daphne xhendersonii -- perfect foliage, even without blooms.
 Not to mention the fact that they'll cover themselves with flowers at least twice a year. Hard to beat that. Usually less than a foot tall, and about twice as wide, these are perfect for even the smallest garden or container.

A little baby 'Kilmeston'
This is a tiny little guy, only a couple inches tall, with a spreading growth habit, almost a ground cover. The foliage isn't nearly as nice as most other daphnes, but makes up for it with the most profuse flowering of the lot. The photo above is a little baby one that went into the garden quite recently, and I could have taken a picture of this plant almost any day of the summer and have it looking the same, liberally covered with small, fragrant flowers. Even the newly rooted cuttings fresh out of propagation in the greenhouse are generally a mass of blooms. Probably because it is so busy blooming all the time, this is a slower grower than most, but SO worth it. Tuck it in at the edge of a raised bed where it can trail over the edge and you will be a very happy person. Also, everyone who visits your garden will be overcome with jealously, which will make you even happier.
D. caucasica 'Variegata'
D. caucasica
If you want a larger daphne, D. caucasica is one of the best, eventually forming a roughly 3 foot sphere of wonderfully grey-green foliage. Profuse fragrant white flowers in the spring, and generally excellent rebloom again in late summer. For an extra kick, 'Variegata' has lovely white margined foliage that you really need. For a similar growth habit with a darker green, glossy foliage, and pink flowers Daphne 'Matens' and its variegated sport, 'Audrey Vochins' are spectacular as well.
So that is the low down on daphnes. If you've grown then, especially in very different climates, I'd love to hear about your experiences. Also (not really related to anything...) can I just say that it is incredibly annoying that Daphne is also a woman's name? Makes googling it a pain. I wish there was an option to filter out all non-plant results from my searches.


Nick Ternes said...

Great Daphne primer. I really need to get a couple of cool Daphnes to try out. 'Cause, who DOESN'T need another plant obsession?

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

I just got my D. 'Silveredge' from you guys and it's in ground, looking good. Based on the catalog, I'm hoping for good things, even though it's x burkwoodii. In sadder news, the D. cneorum didn't survive the hot August trip and is dropping its wee little leaves. Will try again next spring.

Mary Gray said...

Thanks so much for this awesome article! I had no clue these were the kinds of conditions daphnes liked! And why do I only ever see that tramp Carol Mackie for sale?

Anyway, great info here. I am going to print this out and file it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for teaching me about daphnes. I love their looks, but had no idea that any thing other than burkwoodii was possible. I will try my luck!

Anonymous said...

Yup, we need a Gardeners' Google.

Jean Campbell said...

I google: daphne plant -Carol -Mackie. I don't see my girlfriend Daphne nor any Carols, just plants.

Nice primer. I guess they don't grow very well in hot and humid South Georgia despite my seeing Carol Mackie in the big box stores mid-winter.

dogmama said...

don't be hatin on Carol - she stays nice and tight in north west jersey where winters used to be a little harsh - how about Daphne Genkwa? It's a stunner! Huge lilac-like plumes that make peoples jaws drop Ruby Glow isn't shabby either

Deborah Banks said...

I'm in the Catskills (formerly z4 but somewhat warmer now) and Daphne mezereum literally grows like a weed for me. Very tough and vigorous, with lots of seedlings every year that I spread around and pot up for friends. But I'm on my fourth Carol Mackie and this one doesn't look happy either. I assumed this meant we weren't warm enough for z5 dapnes yet. Your notes give me the courage to try some of the others. Thanks.