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.