Daphne was a water nymph (Naiad) who caught the eye of Apollo. He chased after her. To avoid God knows what injury, she sensibly turned herself into a bay tree (Laurus nobilis), which Apollo mooned over thereafter. This is an archetypal representation of the pursued and the pursuer in relationship: if they’re running away from you and never turn around to chase you back, then they’re probably not that into you, as the saying goes.
When it came to giving a common name to this family of precious shrubs from Asia, it was no doubt decided that as the leaves of some of the species resembled the bay leaf and as the beauty of many of the species resembled an irresistible Naiad, that this is after whom it should be named.
A favourite of home gardens in southern Australia, the sweet daphne (Daphne odora) outshines all other winter flowering fragrant plants. Its spicy citrus fragrance is distinctive in the cold air and when brought inside in a generous bunch the warmth empowers the scent. Whenever I catch a whiff, I am transported back to my grandmother’s South Gippsland garden.
The inflorescences come in bundles of white flowers and each flower is made up of four tepals (petal and sepal combo), and each petal is backed with cerise. They are usually borne amidst the leathery green foliage from July to September. There are varieties that have variegated leaves and some with pure white flowers.
They are known to be a little bit fussy. I would say good drainage in acidic soil with an easterly prospect, if you can find the space, is best. Others suggest dappled light. And give it a very light tip pruning every year and pick many bunches as gifts and to cheer up the house. This will help it to stay in some shape. For they can become unruly and untidy if left to their own devices. It will need to be fertilised too, so that the leaves stay glossy and green and not lank and yellow. A regular supply of water in dry weather will help it to stay strong and resist attack from such pests as scale.
In design it is best used in a mixed border. It is not a very interesting plant to look at for most of the year, so it is good to have something more fascinating to look at in the vicinity, but don’t let the daphne be overpowered by other plants in the summer months, as it will restrict its growth and flower production the following season.
And have them growing somewhere where you walk past them every day, so that its scent can astound you each day of winter and transport you to the moment you were first aware of it as a garden plant.