At a time of year when flowers are in short supply, you can rely on daphnes to brighten up the garden. They come in many shapes and forms – some will grace borders and rockeries, while others grow well in containers on the patio. There are about 50 species, deciduous and evergreen, tiny to medium-sized, that flower at different times between late winter and early summer. So amazing is the scent you'll want a pot as near the door as possible to enjoy the fragrance each time you go out.
For all their plus points, daphnes are grown less widely than you might imagine. Admittedly every part of the plant is poisonous and, if touched, the leaves can irritate the skin. So if you need to give your plant an occasional light prune or aim to cut out dead stems, wear gloves. Daphnes also have the reputation of being hard to grow. Ninety years ago, in The English Rock Garden, Reginald Farrer wrote: "You may court daphne in vain, as you may court a cat, with cosseting and comforts without count – but with no result to show but the sickliness of a dying plant."
As Farrer explained, tender care is the last thing your daphne needs. Some species thrive at altitudes as high as 3000m in the Himalayas. Although the roots need moisture, the ground must be free-draining, as it often is on the stony mountainside where they grow naturally.
The shrubs usually require gritty soil, so won't cope with the rich loam found in most borders. Feeding is out of the question, and, if you fancy providing a mulch, eschew an organic one and choose gravel instead. An organic mulch would trap moisture and rot the stems.
Many daphnes need this gritty alkaline or near-alkaline soil, and they generally won't tolerate being transplanted.
Farrer explained the reason thus: "In the light woodland - Daphne cneorum has woodland compost of three or four inches but after that the immense yellow rat tail of a root goes plunging for a foot or so into the subsoil, which is absolutely nothing but pure limestone silt."
When buying a daphne, look out for two-year-old pot-grown plants, which will still have a small root system. In fact, some nurseries use soil-based compost to minimise disturbance on planting. The ideal time to install a new specimen is over the coming four to six weeks, so plan precisely where you want it to go. You won't get a second chance.
Depending on the variety, daphnes do best in a sheltered sunny spot, though some will prefer semi-shade.
D cneorum, the rose daphne, was introduced to the United Kingdom in 1752 from mountainous parts of central Europe. A tough little specimen, D cneorum "Eximia" will provide a wonderful bright-pink display a few weeks from now. The buds are darker red, so you'll get a mix of colours during the flowering period. The shrub is a compact little evergreen, with a 1m spread and growing no taller than half a metre.
If you want a taller daphne which also flowers early, choose a D bholua such as "Jacqueline Postill". One of the most popular bholuas and a hardy evergreen with a delicate pink blossom, it will eventually reach 3m. If you want to extend the flowering season, it's worth investing in tangutica varieties. Their delightful pink-purple flowers won't open till May, so you'll also keep the superb daphne fragrance going longer.
The Retusa group of tanguticas boasts even smaller varieties that, in my experience, are as tough as old boots. I have one that's been thriving on total neglect for quarter of a century. They grow painfully slowly, which makes them ideal candidates for containers. As Farrer commented: "Even though it [Retusa] ultimately attains two feet or so, its owner will probably be a great-grandfather before it does so." I'll have to be patient and live a long time, I suppose.
The almost fragile-looking flowers of most daphnes mainly come in shades of pink, with buds or flushes on petals ranging from white to purple. This includes the deciduous D mezereum which produces masses of deep pink or white flowers on bare stems in late winter. If you want a different, but equally attractive colour, yellow is a possibility.
The Japanese Daphne jezoensis and D giraldii have spectacular clusters of golden yellow blooms.
The semi-deciduous D jezoensis produces a larger number of slightly smaller flowers than the deciduous D giraldii, which flowers in early summer. Both follow this display with red berries.
In my book, though, D pontica is one of the most appealing daphnes. A native of northern Turkey and the Caucasus, it produces clusters of up to 10 pairs of slender yellow-green flowers, forming a spider-like pattern. Simply wonderful.