It is February and I am visiting the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. The sun is shining and, although there is rain forecast for later, the sky is blue with a few white clouds. I could not have wished for a better day. As I walk towards the Winter Garden I detect a slight scent on the air, which makes me catch my breath. When I arrive at the entrance I stop. There are large bushes of Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ in full bloom on either side. I close my eyes and take a deep breath of that glorious perfume.
Why is it so difficult to describe a scent or to be able to conjure it in your mind? If you think about a rose you can visualize any of the many roses you have seen. If someone says delphinium, you can picture those wonderful blue spires. But imagining a perfume seems impossible. However, just one whiff of a certain smell can transport you back to a particular place and time, unlocking memories you thought were lost. But, try, if you can, to remember how it feels to take in that daphne fragrance.
Daphne was the Greek name for the bay tree or laurel, Laurus nobilis, and was later transferred to this genus, which is in the family Thymeleaeceae. Daphne bholua is a deciduous or evergreen shrub from the Himalaya, with sweetly scented flowers, deep reddish-mauve in bud, opening white in January and February. Its hardiness and whether or not the leaves fall varies according to altitude. D. b. ‘Gurkha’ is a very hardy deciduous form collected by Major Tom Spring-Smyth at 3,200m in east Nepal in 1962. Again, it is very richly scented and this introduction greatly increased the popularity of the species. The plant that our members have voted to second place is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. This very hardy form originated as a seedling of ‘Gurkha’, raised at the Hillier Nurseries by their propagator, Alan Postill, in 1982. It is evergreen or semi-evergreen, flowering when in full leave with blooms that are larger than those of ‘Gurkha’ but with an equally powerful fragrance.
Unfortunately, I don’t grow this plant and must visit other gardens to get an annual fix, so I envy our members who have the pleasure, all through the winter, of having it very close at hand. They rate it very highly, so highly, in fact, that it’s reached Number 2 in our Top 30.