Sunday, May 10, 2015

Plant Story--Daphne, Attractive and Fragrant

Daphne odora

Winter daphne, also called fragrant daphne, Daphne odora, is a flowering shrub from Asia. It is in the plant family, Thymelaeaceae, which, because most of its members are Old World, is not well known to Americans. You could call the Thymelaeaceae the daphne family or the spurge laurel family. Daphnes are planted as garden shrubs.

I think of the flowers as white but it is clear from my photos that the buds are pink and the flowers paler pink. The scent is sweet and heavy: I like it very much. I also like that it flowers in early spring but is still flowering a month later.

The leaves on my winter daphne have a white rim, as the photos show. The plants grow to 4’ tall but after five years mine are barely 3'.  The websites say it is hardy in USDA zones 7-9 but I'm in zone 5! My plants do suffer a lot of leaf-browning in winter--see old leaves in the photo below. The most-protected plant turns green and flowers easily a week ahead of the others. So perhaps they struggle with my climate, but they are doing fine. 

Daphne odora

Daphnes are found all over the Old World. There are about 100 species. They are named for Daphne, a naiad (a water sprite in female form) who was pursued by the god Apollo. His attention was unwanted so Daphne begged help of the rivergod her father. He turned her into the laurel tree, Laurus nobilis, to hide her from Apollo. The laurel (also called the bay tree) is not related to the plant called daphne. 

Daphne odora

Naming a plant that isn't the laurel "laurel" was apparently an intentional word game by Linnaeus, the Swede who, in the 1750s, set up the scientific name system we are still using. The spurge laurel, now Daphne laureola, is and was a well-known shrub, native to Europe and the Middle East. Spurges are generally plants in the spurge or poinsettia family, Euphorbiaceae, so this traditional name, spurge laurel, suggested the plant looked like a laurel and a spurge. Many spurges are poisonous, and so is Daphne laureola, the spurge laurel. The widely used common name, spurge laurel, likened the plant to two plants well known to Europeans, even though it is not actually very like either one. Linneaus couldn't resist perpetuating the problem. Since the naiad Daphne was turned into the laurel, daphne in Greek means laurel. In addition, in much of Europe a common name of the spurge laurel was laureola, meaning "small laurel" or "laurel branch".  In making the scientific name of the spurge laurel Daphne laureola, Linneaus named the spurge laurel "laurel laurel," knowing full well it was not related to the laurel, Laurus nobilis (laurel family, Lauraceae). In Europe, where people know laurels, spurges and spurge laurels, people probably enjoyed the joke. It puzzled me. 

Daphne odora

Not all daphnes are from Europe. My winter daphne, Daphne odora, is from China. It has been cultivated since the Song Dynasty, 960-1279 AD. According to an early Chinese herbal, a monk fell asleep below a cliff on Lu Mountain (Lu Shan) in Jiangxi Province. In a dream he smelled a fragrance so strong and memorable that he recalled it clearly when he awoke. He climbed up the mountain to find the source of the odor, finding Daphne odora. He called the plant "sleeping scent" (shuixiang). which has changed over time to the similar-sounding name lucky scent (ruixiang). 

Winter daphne has been in cultivation so long wild plants in China are hard to verify but it is believed to be native only to China. It "grows everywhere throughout the southern provinces" wrote S-C. Li in 1578 (p. 144). It was recorded in Japan in 1309. Traditional Chinese medicine used lucky scent/winter daphne as a wash for sore throats and small pox.

Daphne odora

The vast majority of websites promoting growing winter daphne as a yard plant say absolutely nothing about safety. But like the spurge laurel, it is poisonous. Spurge laurel references say that although that plant is dangerous, it tastes so acrid animals are unlikely to eat it. Winter daphne is part of the University of California, Davis's veterinary poison garden. UCD suggests winter daphne "is  best planted in areas not frequented by children or pets.  All parts of the plant are toxic, but the berries are most likely to be attractive to pets or children." 

A surprising number of familiar plants are poisonous if ingested. Like those others, if you don't eat winter daphne, it won't bother you. And it has beautiful flowers in spring and a fragrance so wonderful you too might climb a mountain to find it. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

Allen, B. M. 1993. Wildflowers of southern Spain. Ediciones Santana, Malaga, Spain. Print.
Daphne. Portland Nursery. Accessed 4/22/15.
Daphne-Siedeblast. 2011-2015.
Daphne. Wikipedia. Accessed 4/22/15.
Li, -C. 1973 Chinese medicinal herbs. A modern edition of a classic sixteenth-century manual. F.P. Smith and G.A. Stewart, translators, Dover Publications, Inc., New York. Original Chinese version 1578. Print.
Toxic plant garden. Univeristy of California Davis toxic plant garden. Accessed 4/22/15.
Valder, P. 1999. Garden plants of China. Timber Press, Portland, OR. Print.

Kathy Keeler
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