Oh, the power of scent. It can stir romance or warn us of imminent disaster. Psychologists say that it is the best of the senses for evoking memory. At its very best we refer to it with a noun: fragrance.
The plant world, indeed, the flora of the Pacific Northwest, is redolent of ethereal smells from spring through autumn and, in a few cases, into winter.
Chinese witch hazel (Hammamelis mollis) and Sarcococca (S. humilis) are the Coco Chanels of winter fragrance.
Who can pass, without picking, lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) in spring? Take a few bloom stalks indoors and you might even see the dog roll over and paw the air.
Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is so sweetly pungent that one sniff will transport you to the tropics.
The heady scents of plants and their blossoms are many and varied in our part of the world. Yet, ask most gardeners what they consider the all-time most memorable natural scent and likely eight out of 10 will say winter daphne (D. odora). It is a truly royal plant, and it’s been in flower, here, since before mid-March.
Due to our cool moist springs, it is still going well into April. It turns the air around it into something halfway between the senior prom and Paris.
The most commonly grown daphne is D.o. “Aureo-marginata” for its rich, glossy green leaves edged in cream. The plant forms a handsome mound, about 4 feet high (occasionally taller) and about 3 feet wide.
Tip prune plants when in bloom to enjoy the flowers indoors and nip back leggy shoots to keep the plant bushy.
Daphne has a reputation for being temperamental.
No gardener I’ve ever known has lost one unless — and this is an important “unless” — they tried to dig it, once established, and move it. Yet, set it in our loose, acid soil, in a spot with bright indirect light and good drainage, and you should have it for years. Never dig around its roots. A hefty application of compost — up to 3 inches — atop the plant’s root zone in late winter will assure healthy growth and robust bloom.
I like to feed my three plants with a balanced liquid fertilizer by the holidays: Valentine’s Day, April Fools Day, again between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, and finally, on the Fourth of July.
Plants are available in 1-gallon cans now. You still have time to get one in the ground, but be absolutely certain you keep the plant well watered from now until temperatures drop and winter rains set in next November.
Daphne is also excellent as a container plant. You’ll need a big pot, at least 18 inches in diameter and 2 feet tall. Again, once planted, do not disturb this little shrub. Keep it well irrigated and feed it, lightly, regularly.
I knew a true “old Southern gentleman” in South Carolina who grew daphne in the ground and also in five large pots.
As the blooms began to pop, he had the potted plants dollied into the house and placed around various rooms to fill his dwelling with their scent as spring broke outside.
“Reminiscent of Scarlet O’Hara?” I once mistakenly asked.
“No! No! Nawt at all. It’s Miss Melanie! This is a genteel plant, lovely and perfectly unpretentious!”
So it is.
Now, this segues into my own story about daphne and the evocation of memory. It’s a long story, but here are the basics.
Back in the summer of 1994, I was at a garden party for Queen Elizabeth II.
Her Majesty was making the rounds, graciously chatting with people.
I was in a cluster of about six. She approached our group, a few of whom she knew, but she stood smack dab next to me (all 5 feet, 4 inches of her) for about 15 minutes.
I listened, trying not to look directly at her … well, not too much, observing the tacit edict that one does not speak to the queen unless spoken to.
I hoped she’d turn to me and say something, anything, maybe, “Well you’re certainly a handsome specimen. You remind me of Philip when he was young.”
That never happened, and I could sense she was wrapping up the conversation and about to move on.
I came to realize that while I’d never be able to brag that I’d spoken with the Queen, I could say I was “in her presence.”
So it was good enough. I stood there thinking, “This is a very cool thing. It couldn’t get any cooler.”
Then, I caught the distinct scent of daphne. Lovely. But wait! It’s August. There’s no daphne in bloom now. What am I smelling?
Then it hit me. I was smelling the queen! I leaned just a little to my right, flared my nostrils just a bit, took a deep breath and, sure enough, the scent came from QE II.
I was smelling the queen! Now, I ask you, have you ever known anyone who has smelled the queen? Well, I did!
So, if you are not yet convinced that you should go find a daphne and get it planted in your garden, this should be the clincher.
Take it from one who knows. Daphne odora smells like the queen.
Quite true, and like Her Majesty, this plant is, indeed, majestic, regal, nobly rooted, just plain royal … and ever so fragrant!