University City

Daphne is lovely, but don’t get attached

Outside our front door, in a big pot that’s filling rapidly with snow as I write, is our latest Daphne.

Like the mythological wood nymph whose name she shares, this modest shrub inspires passionate love but will not be possessed. Just when you think she’s forever yours, Daphne dies. So we gardeners mourn, and, after a suitable period of grieving, try again.

What’s the attraction? Winter Daphne (Daphne odora) is a demure evergreen most of the year, quietly singing backup in the landscape choir until the chilly, gray days of winter’s end in February and March. Then Daphne opens her delicate blooms and prepares the way for spring with the scent of heaven itself.

“The fragrance is wonderful. What a wonderful plant!” Michael Dirr writes in his indispensable “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” my most worn-out-from-use garden book.

Dirr immediately cautions, however, that Daphne is temperamental. That’s his diplomatic way of saying it dies without warning.

Dirr and his wife are still in mourning over one such loss, which usually happens suddenly and without obvious cause. One day the Daphne looks great; the next day it has curled leaves and is gone.

Some gardeners blame themselves – one friend calls it “Daphnecide” – but if a plantsman of Dirr’s caliber loses Daphnes, it can happen to any of us.

A virus may be the culprit. Dirr very tentatively suggests adding small amount of lime and keeping the soil pH near 6.5, though he’s seen the plant thriving (temporarily, anyway) in Georgia in soils with pH about 5.5.

I’m trying a pot this time to improve drainage and control soil conditions. Who knows whether that will work?

Daphne’s name comes from a Greek myth that has inspired creative artists across the ages, much the way the plant now inspires gardeners. Pursued by the love-struck sun god Apollo, Daphne cries out for help, and the goddess Diana transforms her into a laurel tree on the spot.

That led both to a justly thwarted Greek god and to some potential botanical confusion: The botanical Daphne is not a laurel and belongs to a completely different plant family.

Shakespeare alludes to the myth, and the tale set to music became “Daphne,” one of the most popular songs of the Elizabethan Renaissance. The chorus repeats the words of Apollo: “Pity, O Daphne, pity me!”

I wonder: If I sing that ballad regularly to our new Daphne out by the front stoop, the neighbors may think I’m crazy, but will she’ll stick around just a little bit longer this time?

Gardener’s events calendar

Also on the program is a local treasure from the University City, Paula Gross, who works with UNC Charlotte's wonderful botanical gardens. One of the most enjoyable ways to become a better gardener here in the Carolina Piedmont is to pay a visit to UNC Charlotte's gardens each month throughout the year. Gross is a key person in making those gardens – and the excellent events, classes and sales they sponsor - a sustainable success.

You can learn more about the symposium at

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