Daphne Shrubs

Beyond the Myth

Burkwood Daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie') in bloom.
Andrey Zharkikh/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

Are you thinking of growing some type of Daphne shrub? Learn why two of the Burkwood cultivars (Carol Mackie and Briggs Moonlight) could be excellent choices for your yard. The genus also boasts an interesting cultural connection, but with a surprising twist.

Taxonomy and Botany

Plant taxonomy classifies the daphne plants treated in this article as Daphne x burkwoodii Carol Mackie. The genus name thus doubles as the common name for the plant.

Carol Mackie is the cultivar name. Burkwood daphne shrubs are the result of a cross; the parents of this hybrid are Daphne cneorum (indigenous to Europe) and Daphne caucasica, a Caucasus native. These plants are deciduous or semi-evergreen (depending on your climate), broad-leaf, flowering shrubs

Features of the Plant

Carol Mackie plants are compact, rounded shrubs that mature to about 3 feet tall, with a slightly greater spread. They bear fragrant, white to light pink, tubular flowers in clusters; blooming time is generally in early May. The flowers are followed by small red berries (drupes) if pollination occurs. Perhaps the outstanding feature of Carol Mackie plants is their variegated foliage. Despite being classified as deciduous, you can understand why some refer to Carol Mackie as "semi-evergreen": The daphne shrubs in a zone 5 garden will usually keep their leaves throughout the winter; the leaves do not become unattractive until late winter.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, Sun and Soil Needs for Daphne Plants

These daphne shrubs can be grown in planting zones 4 to 8.

Grow Carol Mackie shrubs in a well-drained soil with plenty of compost and a neutral to acidic soil pH. Partial sun to partial shade is usually the recommended growing location for these plants.

At the partial-sun end of this spectrum, you may experience superior blooming. But many people seeking shrubs for shade will gladly sacrifice some flowers in order to enjoy the bicolored leaves of these bushes. Group them together with other acid-loving plants that have similar sunlight needs.

Care, Uses for Daphne Shrubs

Daphne shrubs prefer moist soil. To keep the soil around them moist in summer (and to keep the roots cool), apply a 3-inch layer of mulch. Darrell Trout, a founding vice president of the Daphne Society, says that "perhaps as much as one-fourth of the old growth should be removed every year, after the plant has matured, treating them as you would Forsythias."

With their variegated foliage, they are attractive enough to stand alone as specimens. But these shrubs that bloom in early spring can also be grouped together in foundation plantings or hedges. Their need for excellent drainage makes them good candidates for large rock gardens.

Other Sweet-Smelling Daphnes

In the same genus and also commonly grown is D. odora, whose very species name tells you how fragrant it is. It blooms earlier than the plant under discussion here, but it is also less cold-hardy (zones 7 to 9).

Another Burkwood hybrid with variegated leaves and sweet-smelling flowers is Briggs Moonlight. Grow it in zones 5 to 9. The coloration of Briggs Moonlight's foliage is superior to Carol Mackie's, as the brighter of the two colors is more predominant. In other respects it is very similar to Carol Mackie. 

Warnings About Growing Daphne Shrubs

These are poisonous plants. Both the berries and leaves are listed as toxic in a number of sources and therefore should not be eaten. They may also irritate the skin. Moreover, daphnes are 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.

Greek Mythology Connection? Not What You Think

In Greek mythology, the nymph, Daphne, fleeing Apollo, was transformed not into a daphne shrub, but into what we would now call a "bay laurel" tree (the genus name for which is Laurus).

Bay laurel was, however, referred to by the ancient Greeks as Daphne. Are you confused yet? Well, it gets even more confusing when you consider that mountain laurel is of a genus (Kalmia) distinct from either the true laurels or the true daphnes. Let's try to clear up the confusion somewhat:

We are dealing here with three distinct groups of plants:

  • Daphne is the genus of the daphne shrubs discussed in this article and has its roots in Europe and Asia; the name is a Greek word.
  • Laurus (which is a Latin word) is the genus name of the true laurels, also Old World natives. One species within this genus is Laurus nobilis, the bay laurel. 
  • Kalmia is a New World plant, commonly referred to as "mountain laurel."

But if the "daphne" shrub is not the plant in the Apollo-Daphne myth, what, then, is the origin of the plant's name? Folkard (Plant Lore, Legends and Lyrics, p. 310) suggests that, because many daphne shrubs "have Laurel-like leaves," modern botanists must have been comfortable with this transference between the laurels and daphnes. Similarities in appearance made the two plants candidates for the same names available in the Greek and Latin name pool. Presumably, since the Greek genus name, Daphne had not been used to classify the laurels (the Latin, Laurus having been preferred) and was, therefore, still available, it was put to use when it came time to name the plants that we have come to know as "daphnes." Welcome to the sometimes convoluted (but always fascinating) world of plant-name origins.