An evergreen shrub from China, Daphne odora (ht 1m) opens its exquisite posies of waxy pale pink flowers from rosy buds all along its evergreen stems in winter in Sydney. Its fragrance is one of the most intense of all flowering plants, and can fill the air for metres around, redolent of the most expensive Parisian lemon soap or perhaps a rich, sweet citrus dessert, even more zesty in the white-flowered form (Daphne odora f. alba). A cultivar called 'Perfume Princess' is said to flower over a very long period and will tolerate a full-sun position.
To grow well, a Daphne needs friable, humus-rich, moist, lime-free soil with good drainage, in a part-shaded, woodland position facing east, with protection from hot afternoon sun. A thick mulch over the roots, but kept well away from the stem, will ensure a cool root run. The shrub is prone to rootrot, especially where drainage is not excellent, so planting in a raised bed is advantageous, or even planting it with its root junction a little above soil level. Various fungicidal preparations are now available which can be poured over the root area if the plant seems to be ailing, and may revive it if it is not too far gone. Daphne dislikes cultivation around its roots and should not be overfed or over-watered. Where a well-drained spot is unavailable, it can be grown in a pot, and brought out into a prominent position during its flowering season. It may be easier to establish small - rather than advanced - specimens of these plants. Avoid buying a plant with distorted or mottled leaves, as Daphne is prone to various viruses which can affect their health and longevity. They can tolerate a little frost but it very cold areas, they should be given a sheltered position. If scale attacks the leaves, apply white oil. Feed in spring and again in summer with a slow-release fertiliser. Don't try to transplant am established Daphne, as they detest root disturbance.
With its angular, open habit, it is not the tidiest shrub in the world, so it is probably best sited where it can merge into surrounding greenery once its starring role is over. Picking short sprays of flowers for indoor decoration helps keep it looking tidier, and is all the pruning it needs, unless there are some overly long stems that arch over and make the centre of the shrub too open. A variegated green-and-yellow-leaved form (Daphne odorata 'Aureomarginata') is available and seems less vulnerable to rootrot, though the combination of the yellow-marked leaves with pink flowers is not as pretty as in the plain-leaved version. The lovely deciduous species of Daphne do not, on the whole, do well in Sydney, except in the cooler, more elevated areas.
To propagate, take stem cuttings. I was once told that the perfect time to take the cuttings is Christmas Day - but if you can't manage that, some time round the end of December is ideal, apparently! They do take a while to establish as cuttings.
The waxy lilac or white stars of winter-flowering sweet garlic (Tulbaghia simmerli, ht 40-60cm) are remarkably similar to the flowers of the Daphne and make good companion plantings, as they too will bloom in shade. The white form of Daphne is pretty with snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) and white hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus).
Sprigs of daphne flowers are lovely in a vase.