Daphne Shrubs Plant Profile

These poisonous shrubs need very specific care

Burkwood Daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie') in bloom.

Andrey Zharkikh/ Flickr

The Daphne shrub is a genus of 75 to 90 species of shrubs. They are noted for their scented flowers and brightly colored berries. Flowering takes place in late winter to early spring. All parts of the Daphne are poisonous, especially the bright berries. Two of the Burkwood cultivars (Carol Mackie and Briggs Moonlight) are more common and could be excellent choices for your yard.

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 and their 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, 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.

Botanical Name Daphne (the genus name thus doubles as the common name for the plant) 
Common Name Daphne shrubs
Plant Type Deciduous and evergreen shrubs
Mature Size Upright species can grow up to 5 feet tall. Carol Mackie plants are compact, rounded shrubs that mature to about 3 feet tall, with a slightly greater spread.
Sun Exposure Partial sun to partial shade
Soil Type Well-draining and moist soil
Soil pH Neutral to acidic soil pH
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White to light pink
Hardiness Zones USDA planting zones 4 to 9
Native Area Native to central and Southern Europe and Asia, reaching from Britain to Japan. There are some species found in North Africa and two have been introduced to North America.
Carole Mackie flowering shrub
Lijuan Guo Photography / Getty Images

How to Grow Daphne Shrubs

If you decide to grow a Daphne shrub, there are two things you need to know. First, these are poisonous plants. Both the berries and leaves are toxic and should not be eaten. They may also irritate the skin. Do not plant Daphne shrubs if you have children or pets that live or frequent your garden. Second, 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. These plants are known to die suddenly and without an obvious cause. Think of them as temporary and place them in an area that allows for easy removal if your plant does die.

If those elements don't stop you, growing Daphne shrubs is not hard and 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.

Light

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. 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.

Soil

Daphne shrubs can be grown in USDA planting zones 4 to 9. They prefer well-drained soil with plenty of compost and a neutral to 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.

Water

A layer of mulch will help keep the roots cool and moist. While the mulch will cover the soil, make sure it does not dry out. Water the shrub when there is not a lot of rainfall.

Temperature and Humidity

Daphne grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 or 5 to 9. The Daphne shrub is extremely frost hardy. They have survived temperatures of -3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

The Daphne shrub only needs to be fertilized twice a year. February and July are good times to do this (if it helps you remember, do it on Valentine's Day and the Fourth of July). Do not use an acid fertilizer.

Varieties

There are many varieties of Daphne shrubs with these three being the most popular:

  • Winter daphne (D. odora): This variety has the most powerful fragrance. It grows to about four 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. It's distinguished by its variegated leaves.
  • Garland daphne (D. cneorum): This is a low grower and only reaches heights of less than a foot. It's a popular choice for rock gardens and adding interest to the edging of pathways. Its trailing branches can spread to about three feet. This Daphne shrub is covered with flowers in the spring. By covering the stems with mulch after the flowers fade, you will encourage rooting. Some common varieties include Eximia, Pgymaea Alba, and Variegata.
  • D. x burkwoodii can be evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous depending on the climate zone. This variety grows three to four feet tall. It blooms in late spring and sometimes has a second bloom of flowers in late summer. The Carol Mackie is a popular example of this variety. Another Burkwood hybrid 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's, as the brighter of the two colors is more predominant. In other respects, it is very similar to Carol Mackie.

Toxicity of Daphne Shrubs

All parts of the Daphne shrub are poisonous to both humans and animals. They are so toxic that chewing on the flowers, foliage, bark, or red berries can be fatal.