Daphne is dedicated to the memory of John Bieber...
(A version of Daphne was presented in GREEN PRINTS, edited by Pat Stone in Winter 2015-16, edition #104)
Daphne, you say? For many years Daphne conjured images of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag in “Some Like It Hot”. Hey, what can I say? I’m a movie buff. How could one not love this 1959 Billy Wilder comedy co-written with I.A.L. Diamond? At any rate, I had avoided daphne the genus having heard rumors of their difficulty in pots and their finicky nature once planted. Though, perhaps no less threatening than daphne the genus, Daphne the drag, played by Jack Lemmon, was the easier concept to embrace. But, of course, she was the easier of the two! The commitment to Daphne the drag, the spoof and the lark could be ended by changing the channel. The reality of daphne the genus would require an actual long-term commitment. Speaking of changing channels…
In 1999 I moved from Brooklyn, New York to the Brooklyn located in the “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut. I opened a nursery specializing in a broad range of hardy plants, both herbaceous and woody. With an emphasis on unusual selections I apprehensively decided to order a few daphnes. The shrubs arrived among a throng of companions from all walks of the plant world just as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis playing Jerry and Joe but now with the assumed identities of Daphne and Josephine, arrived and mingled among the all-girl touring jazz band named Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators on the train platform prior to embarking for a roster of gigs. When the delivery guy handed them down to me - the shrubs, not the musicians - my grip on these pots changed from the brute strength I had applied to the other containers to a gentler grasp. It wasn’t from love at first sight, folks. Rather, it was fear manifesting from the vision that they’d be rotten in a month’s time, their green leaves turning to mush as dollar bills crumbled to compost.
I winced as I pondered my fear. With eyes closed I thought to myself that in my arrogance I would undoubtedly murder these poor plants, sending them to early graves. I was just like the mafia in the movie having sentenced Jerry and Joe, now Daphne and Josephine, to death for having unfortunately witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Longing for the escape of the movie I gulped hard. Opening one eye, the other still in a self-deprecating wince, I placed the pots in the shrub section of the retail area.
Some sold that first summer. When asked about cultural requirements I would stare wide-eyed muttering something that sounded like, “Uhhhhhh”, “Jzheeeeee”, “Derrrrr”, “Mmmmmm…” The worst was when the eyes rose skyward as the head turned slightly to the right and the ungodly sounding “Phhhhhhh…” emanated from the largest hole in my face. Folks, this is the dark tongue of those bereft of knowledge. Most pitiable, however, was just how easily the unwitting language of the daft poured from my gaping maw.
To my astonishment the plants that did not sell didn’t rot. In fact, all flourished and most flowered. With a fragrance that heavenly and distracting the tragic tongue I had inadvertently invented abated to blessed and more intelligence-appearing silence. “I’ll bet Daphne, the drag, didn’t smell that good”, I mused, “except, of course, to Osgood Fielding III”, who was played by Joe E. Brown. Come to think of it his trademark open-mouthed gape emitting a sound not unlike a trumpet in Sweet Sue's all-girl jazz band resembled my pie hole when I found myself speaking in the tragic and unintelligible dark tongue I had inadvertently invented.
The delicious perfume of these remarkable shrubs was the catalyst for a tiny epiphany. The heady fragrance to me, doubtless as enticing as Sugar Kane Kowalcyk played by Marilyn Monroe was to Joe who at that moment was hiding in plain sight as Josephine on the train... come to think of it: just as I was hiding in plain sight as a “nursery professional”. Oh,dear. However, in that moment something changed - not in the movie, rather in my being. Some of the fear which had been a seminal part of my deeper self dissipated. It was in this moment I decided to embrace daphne the genus. Daphne the drag faded from view. Off went the television. Out came the books. I was ready to commit.
That first season came to a close. Concerned about over-wintering these drainage lovers I turned the pots on their sides in an unheated greenhouse and then crossed my fingers. All but one survived the cold months. Some emerged a bit tattered, not retail ready.
Spring of the second year rolled around. Armed with the book knowledge I had acquired through the quieter months of winter I planted one Daphne genkwa, the blue daphne, and a beat-up D. cneorum var. pygmaea, the rose daphne, in a new, blazing-sun cacti and succulent garden. Both plants have thrived in this environ for six years. Interestingly, though I had lost the blue in the winter of 2007, she magically sent up four new shoots from the roots of the mother plant in proximity of the dead stems. So, in place of one are now four! And as the blue daphne resurrected the rose daphne continued to get better and better thriving in this full sun sanctuary. Hmm, some do like it hot!
In another garden among a raised bowl of rocks filled with a mix of sand, perlite, soil-less mix, compost and a handful of lime, Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ resides. Carol is a vigorous hybrid. She has grown slowly but well in this situation. However, in the summer of 2005 Carol did not bloom. Uh oh. The shade is increasing in this section of garden and it is very likely the reason for declining bloom which probably indicates a weakening shrub. Oh no... I may have to move her. Oh God – Noooo! I feel an emerging wave of fear coming on. Escapism would be good… Escapism would be great! I wonder if “Some Like It Hot” is on the tube right now. WAIT!!! Stop! Just stop it! Fight the urge... Gulp! Calm down, deep breaths… in; out... in; out... Shh! That’s better. 'Carol Mackie' stands about four to five feet tall with roots that have journeyed into the earth at least as far as Sweet Sue and the Society Syncopators allegedly traveled. I may have to resign myself to doing away with her. Dear Lord, I am a mafia assassin...
Some time back I had the honor and good fortune to meet John Bieber, then president of the Daphne Society, at a CT Chapter Rock Garden Society meeting in New Haven, Connecticut. Of course, when I say he was president of the Daphne Society I mean the shrubby thyme relatives and not a society that might admire Daphne the drag queen. Is there one? Can I join? John spoke glowingly of the genus. He suggested that I consider propagating daphnes thereby making the genus as a whole more available to the public. I tried to not look startled and yet I found this prospect alluring just as Osgood Fielding III found Daphne alluring. Immediately after John made this overture I found myself fending off the growing wave of yet another cowardly escape with an image of Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane vying for placement square and center in my head. I responded, “I'm interested”. (“What are you saying?” I yelled at myself in my head. “What the hell is wrong with you - you're a murdering assassin and a fraud”. You should be fending off this invitation as the frustrated Daphne repeatedly fends off Osgood Fielding's advances.”) It would be the next year before my propagation facility would be up and running. But through John's soothing tone and beguiling, mesmerizing manner as Osgood was mesmerized with Daphne I committed myself to this effort. “Idiot. You should be committed.” Not John. Me.
In 2003 I contacted John Bieber informing him that I was ready to attempt daphne cuttings. That would be cuttings of the shrubby thyme relatives, not a savagery of body parts after a mob hit. And the question popped in my head, “Oh, God, what am I doing?” He - John, not God - sent a generous quantity of many species and cultivars that summer. I stared at them with equal parts of wonder and dismay. Immediately I cleaned, dipped them into plant hormones and stuck the wet ends into tube trays filled with seedling mix amended by half with perlite for additional drainage. Surprisingly, most rooted quickly under mist. And there they remained in this minimally heated greenhouse during the long winter's slumber, occasionally watered with an emerging weed pulled now and then. The following spring, in a blend of sand, perlite, Sunshine soil-less mix and lime, I potted them into 4 inch peat squares. They have grown spectacularly well and would, with fingers crossed, be retail ready next season.
John sent two more batches of cuttings the following summer. When I opened the first box of cuttings I blinked hard but with slightly more excitement than apprehension this go-round. The cuttings had been carefully placed in sealed, plastic bags. Each baggie included a name label upon which the species and / or cultivar was identified. Generous John had filled-in some of the gaps in my growing collection. Most have rooted well, perhaps not with the degree of success of the previous year’s venture but, nevertheless, in surprisingly high percentages. With even more confidence I eagerly dislodged the baggies from the second box later in the season and quickly situated these new charges on a table where, once the misting system was turned off for the season, they were hand watered daily during the shortening days of late summer into October.
I have since doubled the size of my cacti and succulent garden leaving a number of open areas for representatives from the collections John has sent. Thanks to his gentle nudging filled with assurance and kindness he has boosted my confidence... then again this may just be a classic incarnation of the enabler abetting the addict.
In either scenario with small successes, one hinged to the next, my confidence has slowly grown. Now when I hear the name Daphne, most usually the image of one of these remarkable shrubby thyme relatives pops into my mind’s eye although, admittedly, Daphne, Josephine and Sugar Kane aren’t far away.
Excitement has replaced fear. Fascination now trumps escapism. When customers request cultural tips on how to best accommodate daphnes there are fewer instances of, “Derrrrr”, “Uhhhhh” and “Phhhhh”. I now offer intelligible and occasionally intelligent cultural suggestions. With greater confidence based in experience I feel that I have grown beyond novice into a half decent grower and propagator. And look: I know full well there will be difficulties and disappointments, many coming from blunders into which I will undoubtedly stumble just as the “girls” stumbled on rickety ankles assimilating newly acquired high heels. And I remember Osgood Fielding III who hounded Daphne mercilessly in relentless effort to betroth him. I think of the final scene of “Some Like It Hot” when Daphne thwarts Osgood's obsessive advances by insisting that she cannot marry him because she wouldn't fit well into Osgood's mother's wedding dress – after all, they're not built the same, she's not a natural blond, she smokes all the time, she's been living with a saxophone player, she can never have children. Finally she tears off her wig and announces that she can't marry Osgood because she's a man! Osgood Fielding's quip, “Well, nobody’s perfect”, rings in my head. And I can't help but think of all the excuses based in fear I had for not attempting these remarkable shrubby thyme relatives. I know I'm far from perfect but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't accept a challenge and strive forward. Shouldn't we all strive for more skill, knowledge and betterment?
You know, folks, in my life I think I may be able to include both Daphne the drag and daphne the genus in some semblance of balance. Hey, what can I say? Some like it all.
penned by Wayne Paquette
Daphne x rollsdorfii 'Wilhelm Schacht'