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Winter Daphne Tickles Spring’s Fancy

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Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' JC Raulston Arboretum©

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
JC Raulston Arboretum©

Daphne odora or winter daphne is a winter-flowering shrub that can withstand our fickle weather that may be balmy one day and downright cold the next. With its irresistible fragrance and sweet nosegay-type flower clusters, this plant brightens the winter landscape.

Winter daphne is an attractive, sparsely branched evergreen shrub, reaching about 3 feet in height and spread. It is grown for its wonderful fragrant tubular flowers and for its glossy foliage. The most common cultivar, ‘Aureomarginata’, has leaves with a narrow, irregular yellow margin. The plant produces terminal clusters of small flowers in February to early March that are crystalline white inside and deep purplish-pink outside. The flower of winter daphne is highly regarded for its strong scent, possibly the most delightful scent of any flower. Its scent is very similar to Osmanthus fragrans, which blooms in the fall. The flower clusters keep well in water, allowing one to appreciate the scent indoors. In the landscape, winter daphne is best located near a well-traveled path or an outdoor courtyard where its fragrance can be best appreciated.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' JC Raulston Arboretum©

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
JC Raulston Arboretum©

Winter daphne can be challenging to grow. It does not tolerate soils with poor drainage. Root rot diseases associated with poorly drained soils are likely the major cause of failure in the landscape. Ideally, a deep, well-drained woodland soil with plenty of humus is best for this shrub. Plant in slightly raised beds in amended soil to ensure adequate drainage. Winter daphne can tolerate full sun, but does best in a protected area providing moderate shade. The plant needs to be irrigated during periods of drought, but is considerably tolerant of drought episodes. It does not heal well from cuts into mature wood so it is best to avoid pruning. However, “pinching” or taking cuttings from the tips of long shoots on the current year’s growth makes the plant fuller and more floriferous.

At the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, find an old specimen of winter daphne in a protected site in the townhouse garden.