Like a goddess and a servant in a classical myth, my two main horticultural takeaways from our holiday in England. My move to Holland pre-dates my interest in gardening, so I was not quite familiar with them – both are rare in the urban gardens of the Randstad. Early on during our trip, we visited Eltham Palace to meet a dear friend and that’s where daphnes caught my attention with their exhilarating scent. There were many of them, different in habit and colour, of different sizes and ages, leaves dark or variegated. Their scent drifted around as we walked in the surrounding parkland, catching up, exchanging memories and hopes. For the rest of our holiday, I kept noticing daphne bushes all around London.
I looked into them on my return, a theoretical quest, I told myself. It started with the name – I was curious whether it is related to classical mythology. It is – the genus Daphne was named for the nymph who, in a Roman myth, refused Apollo’s love and was turned into a shrub.
Like many a mythical character, the daphne plant is capricious and fussy. I know enough now to ascertain that I am unable to offer it the perfect growing conditions. What a relief (they are quite expensive) – the research remains purely theoretical! In front of the house, where it would greet us with that heady fragrance, the precious strip of land is full. The back garden does not get enough light. I could not give a daphne a “well-sheltered, protected spot with a morning sun and afternoon shade, in a well-draining soil rich in organic matter” that it requires. And I would be intimidated by its unpredictability – hard to establish, it may not flower for years; it does not like its roots disturbed and can die very suddenly. Daphne is not suitable for containers. You cannot even cut branches for vase arrangements as it abhors pruning. Living only up to 15 years, it is considered a temporary plant by many gardeners. And it is poisonous.
Another source of intimidation is the sheer number of varieties. Which is also a source of further relief – I don’t need to choose! Winter daphnes (D.odora) are probably most precious, flowering and scenting the air when most other things are sleeping. Theoretically, if I had an “alpine garden”, I might consider a lovely ground-cover variety (D.cneorum). For a heavier soil, D.laureola and D.mezereum might be candidates. They are hardy and suitable for colder climates, so Laureola could grow in my shade garden, but it is wide and bushy. Mezereum is deciduous and because of the space limitation, I look for year-round interest in most of my plants. Besides, Mezereum is extremely toxic. We do get temperatures below -5 at least a couple of times a winter, so D.bholua, another beautiful winter-flowering type with an upright habit, would not tolerate that. There is D.burkwoodii, though, a small semi-evergreen bush with highly scented flowers in late spring… And wait, don’t I have the allotment?! Having promised myself not to plant anything there this year but fruit and vegetables, I could make just one exception, right, just one?… D. Transatlantica Eternal Fragrance, another discovery, would tick a lot of boxes. It is compact, evergreen, and fragrant and it flowers from April to September – to be enjoyed next to the terrace on the allotment in the warmer months.
I call my friend on her birthday last week. We only have a few minutes, she has guests coming in, but she manages to tell me she is getting a daphne for her garden. It is a Jacqueline Postil (D. bholua). The thought of the two of us buying daphnes for our gardens, inspired by the same place, by a day spent together, is just too irresistible. Is this the excuse I have been looking for? Over the years, I have made many beautiful memories with this friend, and that same day she also gave me two pots of clematis from her garden. I do not need another plant to commemorate our friendship. And yet.
But what of Nandina? It is a completely opposite character to daphne, very un-goddess-like in her habits. Widely known as heavenly or sacred bamboo (stems and leaves have a similar appearance), it is actually part of the barberry family. The plant was sent from Canton to London in 1804, which may explain its popularity in England versus the Low Countries – for once, here is a plant that did not make its way to Europe on a ship of the Dutch East India Company. It has a special significance in Asia; in Japan, people use it in temple decorations and there is even a national nandina society. It is said to have heavenly powers to dispel bad dreams – you just have to tell it to your nandina plant and it will not come true.
Nandina requires little care and, while a slow grower, it can live up to 100 years. It can be planted in containers and moved around the garden to take full advantage of the changing leave colour – the leaves start out copper in spring, then turn green in summer, then reddish-purple in autumn. Nandina domestica, the main variety, has a very eye-catching berry display which stays on the branches from autumn well into spring. In addition to dispelling my bad dreams, nandina would look naturally “at home” in my Japanese corner, among the ferns, hostas, and azaleas, and next to the true bamboo. It would even “echo” the colour of my red acer, Beni Maiko – its leaves go through the same colour circle through the seasons!
Still, I don’t have a reason to get a nandina plant. I can’t think of a friend to call who might be getting one. Except then I stumble upon a dwarf variety called Gulfstream. I know! It will always remind me of my beloved England. And thus, it is settled. I fully realise how feeble this excuse sounds.
8 thoughts on “Daphne and Nandina”
What an enjoyable post, again ! I love the way you present your thought process, and how names play a role in your choice of plants. 🙂 I have a small daphne mezereum, which we call bois-joli in French. It was on the discounted shelf at a garden centre and I had to have it. I can’t say it deserves its pretty name or shares my enthusiasm as it had been true to its reputation for temperamental behaviour. Last summer, I moved it (twice, I think), which means I only had two tiny flowers this winter. To be fair, they did smell nice ! I promise myself I won’t move it again, in the hope it will forget to sulk next year. I don’t have nandina but your post might well change that ! 🙂
Thank you so much for your comment, Frog! And for sharing the story about your mezereum; what a lovely name it has in French – even I, with my extremely limited knowledge of the language, can see that is has something to do with a pretty (joyful?) forest 🙂 (I completely relate to buying plants off discounted shelves, by the way). It must be still worth the trouble even for two tiny flowers – it did get moved twice after all, so the sulking is understandable. I hope it will get over it before next winter. Do have a look at nandina – I think it’s such a good companion to an acer, and may grow better than true bamboo (at least that’s my hope – my fargesia Black Dragon does not seem to have survived the winter…
Oh I am sorry to hear that ! I am in need of something which would work as a screen as Storm Gareth took part of our (rubbish) fence at the back of the garden. But this is probably asking too much, I would need to buy something quite big already, and therefore above my budget ! 😉
I know it may sound off the beaten track a bit, but what may serve as a (very cheap) temporary screen, while you figure out a long-term solution (or while your long-term is growing if it is a living thing) is Jerusalem artichoke. Risking to be telling you what you probably already know… but here it is – they grow very fast, up to 3m tall by mid-summer(and taller if you don’t cut them), quite cheerful, fun yellow flowers (sunflower family), biggish leaves. A very good screen indeed and an excellent soup with truffle oil from the tubers themselves of course;-)
What an excellent idea ! I wouldn’t have thought of that ! I am definitely going to do it, thank you so much for the inspiration ! 🙂
What a lovely post and all the thought and research you have given to it. I have never heard of either plant. The Daphne sounds lovely, but would never survive our cold winters here in Ohio, USA. The Nandina could help me with the dream that I’ve had the last 2 nights that I was pregnant (I am 65). Thoroughly enjoyed your post! I shall have to look at the garden centers to see if either of these shrubs are offered in my area.
Thank you, Cindy! Ha ha, what a dream, but actually… you could be indeed pregnant with big and wonderful ideas for your garden, for the blog, for your Etsy projects… It’s that time of the year! There are many ways to carry “babies”! 🙂 Do have a look at Nandina, although I have read somewhere that it is considered invasive in some states, possibly not in Ohio, but in any case you can always grow one that doesn’t carry berries – although they are stunning, the foliage is amazing in its own right, and so that way the birds don’t take the seeds out into the wild).
What a wonderful way to interpret the dream! I will consider that and look for it’s possible new babies.