In the time I have been involved in gardening, tastes have changed dramatically. Roses, which were once the staple standby of almost every garden, have suffered a sad reverse in popularity, as have many flowering plants. The days of rows of gladioli lined up, all clearly labelled and staked have long passed, as have the rows of glorious gerberas stashed into dry areas under windows, their glorious, and sometimes gaudy flowers, flaunting themselves summer long.
But some plants have somehow managed to sustain their favourite status, albeit in a reduced state, and perhaps those decadently-scented evergreen shrubs, the various members of the Daphne family, have managed it better than most.
I was walking past a garden centre the other day and they had a barrow of Daphnes, “pink and white” lined up for sale, all looking healthy and happy, with deep green glossy leaves. They were all forms of the most popular of Daphnes in New Zealand, the almost-hardy D. odora.
This has been a favourite of New Zealand gardeners for many generations, with its clusters of extremely fragrant flowers in early spring earning it a deserved place in most gardens. Only the most curmudgeonly of gardeners could fail to be impressed with its heady scent. They could legitimately complain about their longevity however – these are notoriously short-lived in the garden.
Things have actually got better in the past few years, as the removal of debilitating viruses and the subsequent production of plants from disease-free stock using tissue culture has definitely helped keep these beauties a lot hardier.
There are a few little tricks you can do to help keep your plant healthier and happier – and hopefully, keep it thriving longer in the garden.
Firstly, it is important to remember that they are very fussy about where their feet are. They do not like being in very moist conditions and they are very particular about having their roots disturbed –they hate their feet being touched, dug into or uncovered. They will do far better in a shrubbery where they are able to be left untouched than in a traditional mixed bed, with cultivation of the soil around their roots.
You need to be a bit canny about feeding them too. Firstly, they prefer a slightly acidic soil – they will not grow in areas that are limey, so forget about planting them with lavenders, irises and rock roses. And they do not like too much nitrogenous fertiliser either – too much N in the NPK fertiliser rating and they will bid your garden farewell. All they really need is the occasional touch up with a low dose of acidic plant food – something like Azalea food would suit them fine, or perhaps a few prills of a slow release fertiliser like Osmocote. If you think they are growing a little unwell due to acidity not being right, you could try a touch of Epsom salts – it seems to help often.
It has to be said that some Daphnes are not the tidiest of growers – they tend to get a bit twiggy as they age. It is a good idea to keep them slightly trimmed as they grow – do not try and give them a hard pruning or cut them back hard – they simply will not take it. Instead, only lightly prune after flowering. Picking the flowers is a great way to do this!
If we are having a cold winter the plants can sometimes be a bit slow to come into flower – do not worry about this as it is entirely natural and the plant will not be suffering any long term damage. Similarly, sometimes when plants are laden with flower buds, the leaves can turn yellow and drop off. Again, do not get too stressed about this – the plant is just dropping some leaves to put its energy into producing flowers, and new leaves will soon enough grow where the old ones were.
There are a few choices when it comes to D. odora. The most commonly grown is probably the longer-leaved and more robust ‘Leucanthe’, which has ruddy flowers. Among the type species, with shorter leaves and more compact growth, there are white and pink forms as well as one marked as apricot and called ‘Cameo’. I have to say whoever named this variety was looking through apricot coloured glasses!
Regular readers will know I am no fan of variegated plants usually, but the form known as ‘Aureomarginata’ as a delight, with a delicate band of gold around the edge of each leaf. Mine has proven to be short-lived but I will replace it if I can find another plant.