DAPHNE, DOES SHE DESERVE HER DIFFICULT REPUTATION?
Daphne, for some inexplicable reason, has garnered quite a reputation. She's considered a difficult, truculent, and even somewhat sickly girl, hardly worthy of our attention here in Northern Michigan. After all, we're built of sturdy stock up here we expect our plants to be the same. We value lilacs, which can grow like weeds and fill our yards with blossom and forsythia, because it bucks the cold to flower early. Comb our local nurseries and as long as you are very lucky --- and the nursery in question has a very extensive plant list --- you might find a specimen of daphne burkwoodii "Carol Mackie." Other members of this extensive genus are not to be found at all. Perhaps her reputation has preceded her. Perhaps she is considered quite unfit to consort with our forsythia and lilacs.
It's hard to understand, however, just what Daphne must have done to be treated in this manner. The truth is, she really isn't difficult at all. Indeed, she is a perfect fit for many Michigan gardens. Imagine, if you will, a plant which thrives on well-drained, sandy soils with very little amendment, a plant which never flags when the weather simmers and which cares little how long the winter lasts, or how cold it gets as long as the growing season is warm. Imagine a plant which can brighten a shady corner with creamy, variegated foliage, or another which reflects the full blast of the summer sun from polished, dark green, leathery leaves. Imagine them buried beneath a spill of flowers the color of pepto-bismol or pristine white, or sprinkled with apple-blossom pink, soft lavender and even delicate lemon yellow. Even better, imagine this plant is one you never have to prune, that's right, never. You can leave her alone and pay little attention and she'll reward you year after year. She offers an assortment of colors to suit your mood and a variety of foliage, shape and size and bloom time to do the same. And when she does blossom, there is no way that anyone is going to miss the show. Most cultivars will be smothered beneath an early flush of blossom and many will rebloom, at least sporadically, throughout the year. One plant can fill a garden with its fragrance. It is a sweet, rich, heady aroma, redolent of sunshine and long, languorous afternoons wasted, mint julep in hand on fan-cooled, shady porches. It is a scent which scrubs away the grime of day to day existence and strikes those deep and half-forgotten, primitive chords which bind us, each and all, to Mother Earth. It is a thing of feminine wiles, this perfume, and Daphne packs more of it per square inch than any other plant in the garden.
However, before you dash headlong to the nearest nursery, list of grievances in hand, let us talk about the care that Daphne does need to survive. It's true she's not the diseased wench the textbooks make her out to be, nor will she demand a great deal of attention, but as with all young lasses, she will respond best to a tender hand.
She can unfortunately find herself, on occasion, playing host to some rather nasty blights, rots and fungi, including both Fusarium and Botrytis, so it is essential to practice good garden hygiene in her presence. Never pile pulled weeds or garden clippings around her feet. Rake fallen leaves as soon as possible. Whole leaves (as opposed to shredded) get wet and slick and plaster into a slimy crust above the soil, preventing air circulation, and, in turn, providing a perfect breeding ground for disease. Wet and heavy soils are plagued with poor aeration, and often serve to incubate and spread disease, but our loose, well-ventilated sand helps to curb such problems.
Of course, just because Daphne remains healthier in free draining soils does not mean she will be happy living in a dry state. This little girl can drink, and supplemental irrigation will almost certainly be necessary, especially during dry spells. The trick is to make sure that what she drinks is good for her. Regular watering in conjunction with well-drained soil suits her admirably, affording her roots a fresh, damp environment, without starving them of oxygen. Don't permit the soil around her to remain dry for any length of time, but don't allow her to soak either. She will not tolerate a situation which is perpetually soggy.
Nor does she care for rich soil or frequent fertilization. Daphne prefers neutral to slightly alkaline sandy loam, although she's not particularly fussy. If your soil, like mine, contains far more sand than loam, dig in a bucket or two of well-rotted leaf mould. That's all she'll need.
She does prefer to stretch her roots into cool and comfortable surroundings, so mulch will probably be necessary. Shredded leaves are the best choice for woodland or border plantings, but a number of Daphne's cultivars are well suited to the rock garden and gravel (limestone, not granite) would be an appropriate choice for these.
Once she's planted in the right soil, mulched and given adequate water, there's little more she'll demand. A single application of multi-purpose fertilizer in spring is acceptable, but don't give her anything more. She will require no pruning. She forms a dense, tidy shrub, usually wider than she is tall and trimming is detrimental. Most varieties blossom apically (at the ends of the branches) so cutting them prevents flowering.
Daphne can be propagated by semi-ripe cuttings, however they are difficult and very slow to root. I have found that layering works best, producing larger, more vigorous offspring. I layer selected branches directly into pots, placed strategically beneath the mother plant in late spring or early summer. I do not bruise or scrape the branch, preferring instead to bend it a little, not to break it, but to stretch the tissue enough to stimulate cellular activity and new root growth. I bury the bend in potting medium and place a heavy stone on top to keep it in place and stable. I leave the pot beneath the plant, where Daphne's dense growth hides it, until the following spring. By this time, the new plant should have developed its own root system and can be cut away from the parent and either potted on or planted out.
The one real challenge to growing a Daphne is that of winter protection. She is hardy, so cold and wind will not harm her. Snow is another matter. Her wood is soft, and freezing weather makes it brittle. Although she never has difficulty supporting her own weight, she cannot handle the additional load a heavy snowfall will place upon her. Young shrubs are not much problem. The ubiquitous, hinged, wooden boards that grace most Northern Michigan gardens, will keep them snow-free for the season. The problem is young plants soon grow. A mature Daphne can be eight or ten feet across, and sometimes as much as six feet tall. Obviously, this is much too large for hinged boards. I have had success stacking cinder blocks on either side of my shorter plants and resting each end of a four by eight foot sheet of particle-board on top of them. This will last one season, after which it should be discarded, unless of course you have a barrel vault in need of a particle-board ceiling. It will see out the winter without incident as long as it is shoveled after particularly heavy snowfalls. I drill the board and tie it in to the blocks, or guy it down on either side, in case the wind should try to snatch it. Moisture, once it finds its way between blocks and board and then freezes, will keep the whole structure stable. In another instance, I‘ve actually built a small shed-like structure around a plant. It can be disassembled and stored each spring and is hardly an aesthetic solution, but it works. The buzzword here is creativity. Use whatever works. It's the only real effort Daphne will demand and as such, it seems a small price.
There are still some publications which claim that Daphne is susceptible to viral diseases. Don't be swayed by them. Perhaps this is a symptom of her undeserved reputation. More likely it is the very misrepresentation which has earned her disrepute. The fact is, that Daphne is not a familiar candidate for any particular virus. This is not to say that no virus will ever attack her. If you have something nasty hiding in your soil, chances are, eventually, it may catch up with her, but she won't be a primary target. Viruses, however, are not common and should present no problem to the home gardener as long as infected plants are not inadvertently introduced. To prevent this, it is wise to make plant purchases from reputable nurseries only and to inspect stock carefully before buying. Try to inspect the roots. A good nursery should not object if you slide the root ball from its pot for a quick inspection, and keep in mind that it is a troublesome sign if it does not slip out easily. This often indicates that the plant has been in the pot too long, which in turn means it may be weakened and susceptible to disease. Roots should look fresh and healthy. They should never be clubbed or congested. The potting medium should be soft and friable with just enough moisture to bind it, not hard, or dry, or soggy and certainly not full of weeds. Discard any specimen which does not pass inspection, and chances are you won't introduce invisible invaders.
So, now you're almost ready to beat that path to the nearest nursery. It remains only to decide which little Daphne you wish to adopt. This is the fun part, but a little daunting. There are so many. Perhaps a more appropriate decision would be how many you are willing to take home. Whatever you select, one last word of warning; select her site before you buy, and allow for her mature proportions. Most varieties will be happy in partial shade or dappled light. Some do prefer full sun. None, once situated, will want to be transplanted.