February 2, 2013

Antique Fragrance Under Glass

It smells like 1810. A short-lived shrub, the tender Daphne odora is worth it's space in the cold greenhouse. It's a shrub that has scented conservatories and greenhouses in the north since 1800, as it makes a fine container specimen, and treasured for it's fragrant blossoms in mid-winter. It's the first thing ones smells upon entering my greenhouse.

I always wanted a winter garden under glass, like the one mentioned in one of my favorite gardening books, A YEAR AT NORTH HILL by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, and I suppose I sort-of have one. A proper winter garden in the north, would have tender shrubs planted into the soil ( which I have, but most are in containers), and the plantings would mimic those of outdoor gardens, and that is something I do not have. In the future, when I cannot afford to heat the greenhouse anymore, I shall convert the space into a winter garden, or at least, into an alpine house ( maybe both?), but until then, my very 'winter gardeny plants' will have to survive in containers - and here's we were start -

Daphne odora blossoms smell exactly like you took sun tan lotion and mixed it with lemon Pledge furniture polish.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna, the Himalayan Sweet Boxwood begins to open its tiny, fringed blossoms which are intensely sweet smelling. 

Go ahead, Laugh - my Californian friends, (or even you northern Pacific gardeners in Seattle and Vancouver), but here in New England, if we want to enjoy to enjoy the sweet scent of Sarcococca and the even sweeter scent of the winter-blooming Daphne odora, we must grow them under cold glass - i pots. It's not particularly unusual to grow these shrubs in containers, as for nearly three hundred years, they have been grown in conservatories this way, as they only survive in gardens in USDA Zone 8 and up. Here in the Boston area, these were common greenhouse shrubs, and they marked the first sign of spring as they bloomed in late January and February along with specimens of camellias and acacia trees, often hidden behind their showier kin in conservatory displays in the Victorian era, to share their rich scent ever so secretly. Sarcococca is a valuable ground-cover shrub in areas where it can live such as North Carolina and south, or San Francisco to Seattle where it is a choice winter-interest plant.

The Sarcococca sits in a smaller pot which sits in a larger lemon, lifting the pot to nose level. The blossoms are small, but they be mighty.

In the early morning, just as the sun hits the greenhouse at 8:00 am, the snow that fell the night before still clings to the glass. In an hour, it will melt from the radiant heat produced by the sun. This white camellia enjoys a morning sunbeam.

I have one fragrant camellia called 'HIgh Fragrance', and indeed, it is 'highly fragrant, especially when the sun warms the blossoms up. For some reason, I only have a few buds on my shrub this year, so I will only be able to enjoy about four of these yummy blooms.

These Chinese shrubs were early imports to the United States, as they began appearing in many greenhouse collections on estates and in private homes in the early 1800's, just after being introduced to Kew in the late 1700's. Just a couple of many important garden plants collected on expeditions sponsored by Kew, and arriving on ships arriving from China.

On these first two days of February, the sun already feels stronger under glass ( not outside!). I run from the house to the greenhouse in summer clothes, hoping not to be distracted by early hellebores or loose turkeys, but once I am in the greenhouse, everything changes. The air is damp and rich with the scents of early blooming plants, particularly the Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna and the Daphne odora var. marginata, as well as my Primula forbesii which is so fragrant, one would think that I spilled baby powder everywhere ( and a double strength bottle of imported vanilla extract).

Seeds of many  perennials which have been pre-chilled have been sown. This lot includes Crambe maritima, the sea kale, Rodgersia pinnatifolia, many Primula species and others. Starting perennials from seed is very cost effective, but stick to those that are worth growing from seed, and not new introductions. 

Each week I am starting seeds, orchestrating them from secret areas around the house where I can offer them the temperatures and/or light requirements that each species needs. The red-leaved Bishop series of Dahlias need light to germinate - the celery needs warmer temperatures than the leeks, but both want to have soil temperatures that remain above 70 degrees. Other seeds are laying around in poly envelopes in damp sand, where they will sit for two weeks, damp and warm at 75º F and then be exposed to near freezing temperatures for 4 weeks, this treatment works well for many Himalayan primroses, as well as for Rodgersia, Pulmonaria and European Primroses. I know, it may all seem like alot of work, but on pod of Pulmonaria will give me about 200 plants, and that sure beats buying one for $12.00.

I ran out of my black labels, so as I wait for my package to arrive, I am doing the ol' stick-the-seed-packet-into-the-pot-thingy. Come on, you know you've done it too! As you can see, my Lachenalia bulbs are almost ready to bloom.

Some seeds I purchased pre-chilled, which makes it all easier, and others, I  buy from Germany from Jelitto because the varieties are ones that I want ( such as their Aquilegia Bird Series, that I saw in Switzerland. Sure, the seed costs $25, but I will get a few hundred plants. Not all home raised perennials are worth growing from seed, as patented forms and top performers are all micro propagated, or grown commercially. For this reason alone, I would never, ever, save my own seed from, well let's say Echinacea or other perennials that are names varieties. They would be a waste of time and space, as their offspring will only result in weedy, lesser forms of their parents.

A rare lily seedling emerges after spending a year and a half in a pot. Another collection of seed from Tibet, one often only gets 5 seeds of some rare species, and even if one germinates after time, it's worth it.

I only grow wild species from seed, or known selections that come true to type. For instance, the Pulmonaria I grow is Pulmonaria officinalis, the wild European form with blue flowers, but if I wanted a find spotted leaved form, or a selection with silver leaves, I will pay for a premium selection.

A rarely seen view of the north east corner of the greenhouse, where the ferns live. Now that February has arrived, the sun is beginning to get stronger, and most of these will need to be relocated to shadier places. The windows are steamed up because I had just watered everything with the hose, and the temperature outside is near 18º F.

This is the time of year when space becomes a problem in the greenhouse, as seed flats are produced from the house. As seeds germinate under light units, I begin relocating them to the cooler greenhouse where they continue. Still, many remain in the house under lights until I can ensure that temperatures ini the greenhouse say near 65º. which will happen by the end of the month. Under lights I have snapdragons started, Dahlia, Impatiens, Calibrachoa and Nemesia. All need early sowing, and as I despise growth regulators which all growers use to keep their annuals short and stout, I try to grow everything myself. Of course, this goes for vegetables as most growers spray their peppers, tomatoes and lettuce with so many growth regulators starting with root stimulants to hormones to initiate early blooms, to hormones that keep lettuce and tomato plants thick and strong looking, that I am trying to grow all of my veggies this year from seed.


  1. Lovely! My daphne (also under glass in NC) is winding down but still with lots of voice. Also singing is osmanthus, lemon tree, cyclamen & sweet & parma violets. It really is heaven isn't it!

  2. Hi Matt! I first starting following your blog over two years ago, and I'm glad to see you're doing so well with it. It's such a pleasure reading your blog. With so many blogs littered with blinking, obnoxious ads on every spare inch, it is so refreshing to read your blog where the reader can just focus on your lovely pictures and writing. To that, I thank you!

  3. Andrea B.4:04 PM

    Daphne is one of my very favorite flowers--my grandmother used to bring my father bouquets every year from an enormous plant in her yard. I have my very first tiny plant, which is just about to bloom (outdoors in NC!) and I want to clip every stem. Do you have any pruning advice so that I do not do any damage with my enthusiasm?

  4. Andrea - What a wonderful memory, and how lucky your Grandmother was!. Many people will advise you to not pick not cut, trim or prune Daphne shrubs, but I disagree. It does depend on the species, but I generally, I trim my daphne shrubs except D. mezerium. Two years ago, the well known plant collector Jozef Halda stayed with us for nearly a week, after returning from a long trip to Burma ( where he had been collecting many gentians and even some daphne). When I came home from work, I found that he had cut most of my Daphne shrubs back nearly to the ground! After I chilled-out, he explained that in nature, most alpine species are crushed by snow, and that the always cuts every branch back by half using hedge sheers every two years. I do that now, and most of my daphne crosses are dense, and perfectly full mounds, like the ones seen in the Alps after snowmelt.
    I say trim with care, but enjoy the flower. I have a D. x burkwoodii nearly 25 years old, and it has been cut back three times. Always, good drainage and the right site will help too.


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