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Plant Profiles: Daphne


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Calf knee

February Daphne (D. mezereum), winter daphne (D. odora)

Small, twiggy, rounded to upright late-winter-blooming shrubs to 4 feet

Sun to some shade; good drainage; a cool root run

Sustained cold in low teens for D. odora; also, most daphnes resent having their rootballs disturbed

Evergreen species including D. odora are unpredictable; one day you think they're thriving, and the next day they're dead - it's not your fault; handle balled-and-burlapped shrubs carefully when planting

Deciduous or evergreen shrub

I logged into cyberspace the other day to learn more about the February-blooming daphne, D. mezereum, and ended up downloading a list of ways I might put an end to my life.

In addition to "Asphyxiation," "Bullet," and "Slitting Wrist or Other," the categories included "Poisonous Plants." I read that although the berries of D. mezereum taste horrid, it takes only a dozen or so to cause death.

So the first thing I want to say about this fabulous late-winter bloomer is that if you have kids, don't plant it. The color and sparkle of its red fruits are too alluring, and it's not worth the risk.

(Pets, however, rarely if ever become fatally ill from ingesting outdoor plants, according to my local emergency-clinic veterinarian. She treats far more dogs for eating bone meal or rotting compost that berries of leaves.)

If you have no kids, you need have no worries about the February daphne, though an abundance of reasons to grow it: Fragrant, rosy-purple flowers on dramatically upright, naked stems; bright and tidy blue-green leaves; extreme hardiness; and, for a daphne, it's relatively trouble free. It blossoms before most things have leafed out and berries while most things are in flower - always a standout, ahead of the crowd.

A couple of varieties are knocking around with deeper-hued flowers or late-fall blooms, but the most touted and readily available form is the white-flowered 'Alba', with abundant amber-yellow summer fruit. It's great in flower and the berries are unusual, if not as startling as the similarly poisoned-apple-red ones.

I imagine most of you have inhaled deeply in the presence of the evergreen winter daphne, D. odora - or more possibly, its variegated selection 'Aureo-marginata' - and have since sworn never to be without one. Enough said. For those who suspect me of gross exaggeration, I urge you to visit one at a friend's or a public garden, and find out why this is a must-have plant. The winter daphne sets a standard for flower fragrance that is well beyond most genera, a rich orange-blossom scent that manages to be sophisticated and giddy in one fell swoon.

As luck would have it, D. odora is also eager to be in bloom. An extremely young shrub in my last garden displayed sporadic pinky-purple stars for a good eight months. A few steps away, the indispensable 'Aureo-marginata' vied for more than equal time, its evergreen leaves stenciled with creamy yellow margins on a chubby shrub that is hardier than the straight species. Unfortunately (I feel like I'm doing a lot of giving and taking away here), "hardier" only takes us to 15 degrees F or so. So if you're toddler free, grow the February daphne for a new lease on life.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.