Daphne bholua

Family: Thymeleaceae

Woodlands of the Himalayas

Type of plant:
Evergreen or deciduous shrub

Loose, with long unbranched stems (an advantage when in bloom)

Narrow, medium green; oldest leaves sometimes drop after the plant blooms

white to rose, held in terminal clusters of 8 to 15, highly fragrant; appear in mid- to late winter

Exposure: Part sun

Water needs:
Moderate to high in growing season

USDA Zone 7

Daphne, the first love of Apollo, gave her name to a genus of shrubs as endearing as her flight from his embrace. She was transformed into a laurel tree to escape the god, so we crown champions with laurel (Laurus nobilis) wreaths. But for fragrance alone, there is no single genus of shrubs that I find more indispensable for the garden than Daphne.

One of the finest species, in my estimation, is Daphne bholua, despite its difficult specific epithet. Pronounced bo-LOO-a, the name comes from bhulu swa, as the plant is called in the Nepalese language. I have often come upon it growing as a six-foot-tall evergreen shrub in eastern Nepal at elevations between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. I have also encountered this species growing at somewhat lower elevations in the mountains of northern Vietnam and at very high elevations in western China, northern India, and Bhutan, where its bark is the fiber of choice in making paper (along with that of Edgeworthia papyrifera). Some taxonomists place the lower-elevation populations of this species into another taxon, D. papyracea. Oddly, it is likely because of its widespread distribution that D. bholua is not widely grown. The first attempts at cultivating this species probably involved plants with low-elevation (less hardy) parents. Once declared not hardy, one has trouble resurrecting one’s reputation.

However, there are now several reliably hardy clones of this species in cultivation. The hardiest of the lot, D. b. var. glacialis ‘Gurkha’, was the first fully deciduous form of the species to enter the scene. It came out of collections by Major Spring-Smyth at nearly 12,000 feet in eastern Nepal in the early 1960s. Large clusters of very fragrant white flowers open from rich pink buds in January to March in the Pacific Northwest (the bloom may be later in areas with a colder climate).

Seedlings raised from ‘Gurkha’ at England’s Hillier Nurseries in the ’80s resulted in the very popular ‘Jacqueline Postill’, which, though fully or mostly evergreen, is still considered one of the hardiest and showiest cultivars. It blooms in midwinter, while fully cloaked in handsome narrow, wavy, deep green leaves.

Daphne bholua ‘Alba’ offers pure white, intensely fragrant flowers in mid-February. ‘Peter Smithers’ deserves mention for being the darkest flowered of all forms in cultivation. British nurseryman Robin White raised the only known D. bholua hybrid, crossing ‘Jacqueline Postill’ and the much hardier D. acutiloba ‘Fragrant Cloud’. The resulting D. ‘Spring Herald’ has a bushier habit than the species and blooms later, but it offers a long progression of cream-tinged, clove-scented flowers.

Unlike many other daphnes, whose growth habit might be described as dense and squatty, D. bholua possesses an upright open habit. This stance makes the species, and especially its deciduous cultivars, doubly desirable, because it puts the fat clusters of ethereally scented white or pink flowers at the forefront. With the fragrance of its flowers in mind, I sited it near a doorway on the east side of our home—a sheltered spot, with cool, moist humus-rich soil. It can be kept in a container if there is a cool glasshouse or porch in which to place it during the winter months. Fortunately, fruit is seldom set on plants under cultivation. This reduces the possibility that this species will invade local ecosystems as spurge daphne (D. laureola) has.

Commercial availability of D. bholua is on the rise, but it will be some time before it becomes common fare. If you happen upon it, buy it. The queen of this genus is begging to be better known.

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