The Daphne genus includes more than 70 broadleaf evergreen shrubs native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Of these, a relatively small number of species and hybrids are commonly grown for landscape cultivation, including D. odora, D. mezereum, D. transatlantica, and especially the Daphne x burkwoodii hybrids, which include the popular 'Carol Mackie', 'Briggs Moonlight', and 'Somerset' cultivars.
Daphnes are quite attractive shrubs, producing white to light pink tubular flowers in May, followed by small red berries (drupes). The small oblong, light green leaves are evergreen in most climates, and the shrub usually forms a very nice rounded mound. Varieties such as 'Carol Mackie' are especially prized for their variegated foliage. Daphnes are relatively small shrubs that are good choices for small yards, where they make good foundation plants or specimens for shrub borders.
These are slow-growing shrubs that are generally planted from well-developed nursery plants in spring. It can take seven to ten years for these plants to reach their relatively small mature size. Be advised, though, that all parts of the Daphne are poisonous, especially the bright berries.
|Botanical Name||Daphne spp., Daphne x hybrids|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen shrub|
|Mature Size||1–5 feet tall, 2–6 feet across (depends on variety)|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-draining soil|
|Soil pH||5.5–6.4 (slightly acidic)|
|Flower Color||White to light pink|
|Hardiness Zones||4–9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Asia, Africa|
|Toxicity||Highly toxic to humans and animals|
Daphne is not the easiest of shrubs to grow. They do not transplant well, and the grower is required to maintain a delicate balance between keeping the soil moist and keeping it well-drained. These plants are known to die suddenly and without an obvious cause. To avoid disappointment, think of them as temporary and place them in an area that allows for easy removal if your plant does die.
If you manage to find the right balance of conditions, then well-established Daphne shrubs can be relatively easy to care for, since they do not require much maintenance, pruning, or special care. You will need to pick the type of Daphne shrub you want since there are many varieties.
When planting a nursery-grown specimen, it should be set slightly higher than it was growing in the nursery pot, so the root crown is elevated about 1/2 inch. Preparing the soil by blending in some peat moss can help create the slightly acidic pH level these shrubs like.
While some varieties of Daphne do fine in full sun, most will bloom best in part shade conditions. Those varieties grown mostly for their variegated leaves will display well even in relatively shady conditions, though the flowering will be reduced. Group them together with other acid-loving plants that have similar sunlight needs (azaleas, for example).
Daphnes prefer well-drained soil with plenty of compost and a slightly acidic soil pH. Daphne shrubs thrive in moist soil. To keep the soil around them moist in summer (and to keep the roots cool), apply a three-inch layer of mulch.
In the first year of growth, water your shrub several times a week. Once established, Daphne shrubs still require a tricky balance between consistent moisture and good drainage. Make sure the mulch remains moist, and make sure the shrub gets at least 1 inch of water per week, through rainfall, irrigation, or a combination.
Temperature and Humidity
Daphne shrubs can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9, but in zones 4 and 5 they really should be considered semi-evergreen, or even deciduous, since they are likely to drop their leaves and grow new foliage in the early spring.
These shrubs accept high humidity levels, though they may be susceptible to fungal leaf spots.
Daphne shrubs should be fertilized twice a year using a granular balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10). February/March and July are good times to do this.
Is Daphne Toxic?
All parts of this plant contain compounds known to be highly toxic. Daphnin and mezerein are identified compounds; there may be others that are not yet known. The berries are particularly concentrated with toxins. Use these plants carefully in homes where there are small children or pets.
Symptoms of Poisoning
Consumption of Daphne berries, leaves, or even the bark can cause burning lesions in the mouth and throat, vomiting and diarrhea. Severe cases can cause kidney damage, irregular heartbeat, coma, and death.
There are several main categories of Daphne shrubs, including:
- Winter daphne (D. odora): This species and its cultivars have the most powerful fragrance. It grows to about 4 feet tall with narrow, glossy leaves. This type is the most likely to die without an obvious cause. The flowers bloom in late winter and 'Aureo-Marginata' is a popular winter Daphne shrub, distinguished by its variegated leaves.
- Garland daphne (D. cneorum): This is a low grower, reaching less than 1 foot tall when fully mature. It's a popular choice for rock gardens and adding interest to the edging of pathways. Its trailing branches can spread to about 3 feet. This Daphne shrub is covered with flowers in the spring. By covering the stems with mulch after the flowers fade, you will encourage new rooting. Some common varieties include 'Eximia', 'Pgymaea Alba', and 'Variegata'.
- D. x burkwoodii is the very popular hybrid form, likely derived from crossing D. cneorum and D. caucasica. These shrubs can be evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous, depending on the climate zone. Burkwoodii hybrids generally grow 3 to 4 feet tall and bloom in late spring and sometimes again in late summer. 'Carol Mackie' is a popular cultivar of this group. Another with variegated leaves and sweet-smelling flowers is 'Briggs Moonlight', which grows best in zones 5 to 9. The coloration of 'Briggs Moonlight''s foliage is superior to 'Carol Mackie', but it is otherwise very similar.
These slow-growing shrubs don't require much in the way of pruning, since they naturally mature into nicely rounded, mounded plants. Broken branches or the occasional misbehaving branch can be trimmed off. If you do prune, do it immediately after flowering is done, as this will preserve the following season's blooms. Generally speaking, though, Daphnes do not like pruning and may experience pronounced dieback if pruned heavily.
Daphne shrubs are not hard to propagate from semi-green cuttings taken from July to September. However, the very slow growth rate means that most people prefer to buy larger nursery grown plants rather than spend years nursing a cutting into a mature plant.
If you do attempt propagation, cut a long stem from healthy newish growth in late summer. Look for relatively firm wood, taken from the area where green growth is emerging from old wood. Cut the severed branch into 4- to 6-inch segments, each containing plenty of mature leaves, using sharp pruners.
Remove the leaves from the lower half of each cutting, then plant each one in a mixture of sand and peat moss. Water the growing medium thoroughly, cover the pot in plastic, and place it in a place that receives bright indirect light. When roots develop (it may take a couple of months), transplant them into a large pot filled with sandy potting mix. When plenty of new growth has begun to develop, the new shrub can be planted in the landscape. You may need to keep the plant growing in its container for a full year or more before it's ready to transplant.
These shrubs are considerably more temperamental in the northern part of the hardiness range, zones 4 and 5, while are much steadier in warmer zones. Cold winter zones can cause winter damage, and injured shrubs are often susceptible to leaf spots, canker, twig blight, crown rot, and viruses.
Potential insect pests include aphids, mealybugs and scale.
More than one plant expert has commented on this shrub's habit of dying for inexplicable reasons, so don't feel too bad if your Daphne surrenders suddenly in a mysterious way.
Strelau, M, Clements, D R, Webb, C, Prasad, R. The Biology of Canadian Weeds: 156. Daphne laureola L. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 98, 947-958, 2018, doi:10.1139/cjps-2017-0247
Fragrant Shrubs. University of Minnesota Extension.