The Tale of My Two Daphnes

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

Several years ago, long before my Master Gardener days, I was immediately attracted to the sweet fresh aroma of Daphne Odora or Winter Daphne and purchased two small shrubs of Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’ from my local garden centre. Daphne Odora requires well drained soils and this particular cultivar prefers part shade so it was fortuitous that I happened to plant them (with my limited gardening knowledge at the time) at the edge of the tree buffer, near the base of an oak tree and on a slight slope. By chance I picked the best spot for this delightful shrub in my barren shaded backyard. I enjoyed their powerful pleasant fragrance throughout my backyard from their central location next to my garden bench. Many people describe the scent as follows: ‘lemony’, ‘reminiscent of southern magnolia’, ‘wonderfully fragrant’, ‘similar scent to Osmanthus fragans’ and ‘possibly the most delightful scent of any flower’. My daphne shrubs thrived until March, 2015. On January 31, 2015, the mature shrubs (four feet spread and 30 inches high) were covered in snow and I noticed a few weeks later one shrub with yellowing leaves. I attributed the sporadic leaf problem to winter exposure and hoped it would rebound over the spring but it slowly deteriorated until this February when only two regular-sized leaves appeared on one shrub while its partner was in full bloom!

Photo taken March, 2015.  Winter Daphne shrubs after February 24, 2015 snowstorm.  Yellow leaves on shrub to the left and bright green lanceolate glossy leaves on healthy shrub on the right.
Photo taken February 19, 2017.  Only branches visible on daphne shrub on the left and healthy shurb on the right is in full bloom.


Photo taken March 2, 2017  Two stunted leaves remain on dying Daphne Odora shrub.

As shown in the photographs my daphne shrub did not die suddenly but slowly deteriorated over 2 years. When the soil was removed from the base of the plant, dead feeder roots and bright yellow flaking of the main root skin was noted. I suspect it suffered a root disease probably because of drainage issues which were worsened by our wetter than normal spring and summers of the past two years. And perhaps aggravated by its more exposed location to severe winds in the winter. In hindsight I should have used more humus when I planted the shrubs many years ago.


Photo taken March 2, 2017  Close up of unhealthy leaf and stunted buds on dying Daphne Odora shrub.


Photo taken March 2, 2017  Close up of unhealthy exposed roots near base of shrub.

Now it is well known that Winter Daphne is a fickle plant and can die very quickly for no apparent reason. JC Raulston Arboretum reports that even in the best of conditions the evergreen shrub rarely lasts more than eight years and often dies in four.  A simple internet search will reveal many sad stories of the sudden demise of dapne odora in home gardens and pots but it is still recommended for yards in the southeast by the American Horticultural Society. Its many attributes are listed below and surely these outstanding qualities compensate for the inconvenience of their short life span.

Attributes of Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’

  • rose-purple clusters of strong fragrant flowers
  • thick-textured sepals of the flowers last several weeks
  • slightly better winter hardiness than the species in general
  • considerably tolerant of drought episodes
  • slow growth and does not require pruning
  • rounded densely-branched pleasing mound form
  • flowers in the winter and early spring February to March
  • glossy variegated foliage
  • attractive evergreen shrub for winter landscape
  • densely branched with attractive smooth reddish-brown color
  • deer resistant

Problems of Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata

  • does not tolerate soils with poor drainage
  • does not heal well from mature wood pruning
  • does not tolerate transplanting
  • prefers neutral pH soils
  • prone to diseases such as crown and root rot, twig blight, botrytis
  • all parts are highly poisonous

Although I am disappointed with the loss of one of my daphne shrubs, I am grateful that I planted two.  I hope to enjoy a few more years of spectacular fragrance from its remaining evergreen sister in my barren late-winter garden.  Perhaps this year an early summer project will be to propogate its softwood cuttings. 


Photo taken February 19, 2017  Healthy leaves and terminal clusters of small tubular flowers on healthy daphne odora shrub.