great shrub: fragrant daphne mezereum

daphne mezereumWHAT’S THAT PERFUME? It’s always hard to believe you smell anything other than someone burning winter’s deposit of brush this time of year, but sweetness is in fact in the air. The first good whiff: Daphne mezereum, an old-fashioned shrub I’ve grown for decades but hardly ever find for sale, except perhaps as a vintage botanical print (alas, no scratch-and-sniff included).

The so-called February Daphne is more the March Daphne here, but who can blame it for waiting until the glacier recedes? At chest-height, my one remaining old plant is a non-descript, upright creature with this single two-week moment to recommend it, though quite a moment it is.

The flowers (from purple to white) are followed by poisonous red fruits, and this year I may try to germinate the seeds inside them, unless I can score some plants from Whitman Farms, perhaps, the only source I have tracked down (and where I have not ordered before, so no personal history to recommend it from). I only want the purple ones; fingers crossed.

daphne mezereum 2
I never expected the Daphne to live so long, I guess, judging from where I sandwiched it between a shed and a gold-leaf Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii.’ My previous plants gave up the ghost one after another, as Daphnes do, but this one just soldiers on, the sentry to another spring of heady scents.

(1885 print from the University of Hamburg library collection.)

  1. Rosella says:

    I must look for this plant! I love daphnes, although they do have a tendency to take their leave without goodbyes! I take it from its position with you that it is a shadelover?

    I have another candidate for fragrance at this time of the year too — edgeworthia chrysantha, although I don’t know if it would be hardy in your part of the world. It’s delectable perfume floats on the light spring air for quite a distance and it’s blooming right now in zone 7A. I wrote about it on my little garden blog a while ago, with some photos.

  2. Brenda Rose says:

    Hmmm, never heard of this one before. Anything that blooms and has fragrance this early in the year must be very special indeed.

    I have tried Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ two or three times because it is reputed hardy to zone 5, but I have never gotten them to make it through their first winter. Hence, I am always leery about how hardy a daphne really is.

    I would love one though, I had a friend in California with lots of it and the scent was truly sublime.

  3. Mackenzie says:

    Interesting… I have two Daphne Carol Mackies in my Pittsburgh garden, which is a Zone 6… they have survived for 15 years, leggy and sprawling, and so fragrant. I am amazed they have lasted this long given their finicky reputation. They were beaten down by three feet of snow this winter but it doesn’t seem to have fazed them. Amazing.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mackenzie. I have several ‘Carol Mackie’ daphnes as well, and they were really hammered to the ground, too. I am waiting to see what they do as the weather warms…whether they still have it in them to bloom, leaf out and thrive. Fingers crossed. See you again soon, I hope.

  4. Grambon says:

    Has anybody ever ‘rooted’ a shoot (in water or soil) from one? I’ve not done it with Daphne but I do have one so I’ll try it myself.
    I’ve done it with a few cuttings from different kinds and have developed healthy plants from them. Must grow it under lights, however, and use a rooting hormone both when rooting in water or soil. Takes some time so be patient.

    1. Ed says:

      Our daphnes propagate line wild fire with no effort at all. The red berries drop off and little suckers start right there under the bush.

      We pluck them out when they are about 3” to 4” High and plant them elsewhere, that are all over our yard now. It can take 4 to 5 years for them to get 18” to 24” high here in Nova Scotia.

  5. marie says:

    Fieldstone Gardens in Maine and Seneca Hill in Oswego NY both have this wonderful daphne, and are great sources of unusual hardy plants. Mine are not yet blooming — surely it will be spring soon?

  6. Lisa-St. Marys ON says:

    Oh, thank you so much for the 11 things to smile about this morning. My other emails were not so smiley. Too much bad news going on. It is good to remember all the things we have to smile about.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lisa. I know; the news can be so harsh, so I am feeling particularly blessed for the garden, even gray and cool and soggy as it is. :) I am always happy to share smiles, and thankful for the nice thoughts that come from readers, including you. See you soon.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, David. Every property should indeed have a brushpile, which is one of the most important refuges for birds in particular. All the conservation organizations recommend it. I guess sometimes after massive storms there is too much of a good thing. Generally I try to pile stuff out of the way, in the woodland fringe, to keep all that “biomass” intact and let it decompose gradually.

      I can remember when I first bought this house the pile reached about the size of a garage…the land hadn’t been cleared or maintained in years…and then we had a huge burn. Hard to believe, but it was twenty-five years ago! It lasted for days and days.

      See you soon again, I hope.

  7. MichelleB says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I have sucessfully propagated daphne aureomarginata. It’s hardy in zone 6 where I used to live. I would think the other daphnes would respond the same. Take tip cutting when the new growth is still flexible but not too green-mid June would probably be good time. If you propagate azaleas, do it at the same time.

    Take a cutting about 5 inches long. Pinch out the growing tip and strip all but 2 or 3 leaves. Dip in rooting hormone put it in good potting soil. I usually make a little greenhouse out of a white plastic bag. They grow slowly so it takes a while to get a decent sized plant, but it’s free…

  8. DeborahB says:

    I have a lot of daphne mezereums, a few of which are at least 18 years old. It reseeds all over the place here, so I suspect you had no trouble germinating your seeds. If I had realized you needed some babies, I could have brought you 20 or 30 of them last Saturday. They transplant easily when little, not so much when they’re bigger.

  9. Harriet Williams says:

    I am in westchester, zone 6b and we have had a very hot and dry summer but i have been watering. My carol mackie, which is a happy 4 years old,and its leaves are in the sun but its feet in the shade, suddenly had all its leaves turn brown. I am not sure if it is dead and plan to see what happens next spring, but does any one have any expiernces of carol mackie heat stroke.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Harriet. This plant (and Daphnes in general) are inclined to some very strange behavior, including dropping dead suddenly. However, with such a hot, dry summer, I wonder if it juts decided to go dormant very early. Mine looks like late September — half the leaves are yellow already and will drop soon. But “brown” sounds worse than that… Anyhow, yes, I have had them drop dead (and also just split open and die, because their structure where the trunk/branches connect isn’t very sound sometimes. Fingers crossed for your plant.

  10. Marianne Link Alexander says:

    Love my Carol Macke! She greets me with her sweet scent as I brush past her walking down my garden path! In my zone 5 garden she has survived several harsh winters and always bounces back stronger every year delighting all who pass her too!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Marianna. I have two of them, and even though they get flattened in the snow they manage to come back here, too (Zone 5). Eventually they just keel over, in my experience (Daphnes seem to die mysteriously and suddenly in my limited experience), but it takes a lot of weather and years first.

  11. Tom in SE MI says:

    Here in the midwest I’ve had good success with these clones: burkwoodii ‘Silveredge’ and ‘Gold Dust’, medfordensis ‘Lawrence Crocker’, napolitana ‘Meon’, and transatlantica ‘Jim’s Pride’ (which falls open under snow load like Carol Mackie but blooms nonstop from spring until winter). My advice is to buy them really small (like a 4″ pot), and give them lots of sun in a really well-drained spot that never fully dries out and is a bit on the alkaline side. Heck, some species grow in full sun, rooted in cracks on south-facing limestone cliffs on the Greek coast.

    I’ve got a mezereum in a partly shady spot with a lot of organic matter, and in the summer heat it doesn’t look very happy but hasn’t croaked yet. Seed I planted two or three years ago just germinated this spring, and since it smells like an orchid in bloom it’s going next to the front door. Supposedly it does really well in the British Isles, and I’ve heard that there’s a lot of it growing wild on Goat Island at Niagara falls, so I’m thinking alkaline soil and a fair amount of humidity is in order.

    Arrowhead Alpines in Michigan has an excellent selection of daphnes.

  12. Tom in SE MI says:

    Re. taking cuttings, early last spring I pegged down a branch of ‘Jim’s Pride’, wondering if it would take root. When I checked on it late this winter it felt like it had, so I cut it off only to find that it hadn’t rooted at all. But with nothing to lose I coated it in rooting powder and stuck it in the ground, and nearly 4 months later it’s still alive! Go figure…no wonder daphne culture’s been likened to voodoo magic.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Tom, for the Daphne info. They really are voodo-ish sometimes, right? :) My biggest ‘Carol Mackie’ is a goner, finally, and I lost two others this winter as well. Sigh.

  13. Charlie says:

    I went to the Bellevue Botanical Garden today and the Perennial Alliance plant sale was in full swing. The White Picket Gardens had six inch starts of the Daphne Mezereum, what a find. I have not been able to find this plant anywhere.

  14. Rachel says:

    I wandered to this website after keying out some Daphne mezereum blooming in the woods here, where it’s apparently naturalized. I am in northern Vermont- zone 3- so it’s interesting to see the cultivars are only hardy to a 6 or so… it’s like blackberries, they are wild in our woods, but none of the commercial ones are hardy!

  15. Sylvia Spasoff says:

    I received two seedling plants of a daphne (which I now think is mezerium) from a long-time gardener in Ottawa, Ont. in the ’90’s It reseeded in her garden. We are in Zone 4 or 5b depending on which index you use. One of the plants is well-established in my garden, the other has died back over this winter, but I’m seeing a number of healthy seedlings growing up around it. It flowers here probably in late March – snow still on the ground and is quite lovely. Given what has happened here, I’m pretty sure that it could be germinated from the berries. Incidentally, have had no reaction to pruning the plant, which some have said could be an irritant.

    1. margaret says:

      I have a lot of seedlings, like a little colony around where my original plant was, too, Sylvia. I have moved some to new places over the years. Daphnes are sort of notorious for dropping dead unexpectedly, and one reason even has a name: Daphne Sudden Death Syndrome (and more science about it here). I know at least one of my Daphne (not a mezereum but a ‘Carol Mackie’) got “wet feet” one winter when we had melting ice under subsequent snow and a real mess, and its roots rotted etc. So whether it was the particular pathogen of DSDS or a glitch in the cultural conditions — you are not alone in losing a Daphne!

  16. cristine says:

    i abandoned my garden 5 years ago -ticks, life etc……….& now i am reclaiming it which is magical .one astounding benefit is that the daphne has seeded everywhere & the plants are all blooming i keep praying that the peonies are still there but what a glorious gift i switched to this daphne after i lost my carol mackie which grew to a 12’circle before it split & died so i am even more gratefull for this happy gardening from the hilltowns of western ma zone 4

  17. Livia says:

    I am in the 5a hardiness zone near south Georgian Bay in central Ontario, Canada. A few years ago I discovered a Daphne Mesereum, which I didn’t know what it was at the time, growing in a fairly deciduous section of my 20 acre forest, which is a deciduous/coniferous mix. This past week (early April 2021), I once again saw it in full bloom, so fragrant! So I searched out what it is. It has tripled in size from a couple of years ago, growing quite fast! I am perplexed as to how it got there!

  18. Janet says:

    I finally figured out this is what my laurel is! I look forward to smelling it every spring, it reminds me of the smell of coppertone suntan lotion. A smell I never thought of as nice, really, but as a spring flower even when surrounded by snow, it’s a lovely smell. I’m zone 4 (3-ish at times) in Maine. Mine has purple flowers, I’m going to try propagating it by seeds

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