Things aren't always cold and dreary in the winter.
Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'
| Credit: Steve Bender

What do you consider the most fragrant plant in the garden? Gardenia? Excellent choice. Korean spice viburnum? Worthy candidate. Confederate jasmine, lilac, winter honeysuckle, Easter lily, bearded iris? All good names. Yet there is one shrub we haven't mentioned that if it isn't the most fragrant surely shares that designation with another. The unsurpassed winter daphne.

As you might guess from its name, winter daphne (Daphne odora) blooms in winter. I took these photos at Aldridge Gardens in Hoover, Alabama this week. I didn't know it was there, until a wave of sweet, spicy perfume nearly knocked me off my feet. All this from a dense, rounded shrub less than 18 inches high.

This is why it ranks so highly on Grumpy's exclusive Scents and Smellability Scale. The fragrance is wonderful and you can smell it from far away.

Native to China and Japan, winter daphne grows bigger with time, eventually reaching 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide after many years. At all times, it remains neat and tidy, seldom needing pruning – not even from deer, who won't touch its evergreen foliage. Garden centers typically sell two kinds. My favorite, ‘Aureomarginata' (shown here), combines yellow-edged leaves and waxy, light pink flowers. Daphne odora alba offers solid green foliage and pure white blooms.

Winter Daphne Shrub
Credit: Steve Bender

This shrub is notoriously finicky about its growing conditions and will kick off in a heartbeat if you fail to meet them. Excellent drainage is essential. Plant it in heavy clay and you might as well throw it into a wood chipper. It needs a lot of air around its roots, so plant in loose, porous soil containing lots of organic matter. Always set the plant a bit high in the hole, so that the top of the root ball is 1 to 2 inches above the soil surface, and then cover the top with mulch. Water thoroughly once a week during summer droughts.

Winter daphne doesn't like to cook. Plant it where it receives at least three hours of light shade during the middle part of the day. I found this one growing in the shade of tall pine trees. It doesn't like to freeze either. It grows best in USDA Zones 7-8.