Saturday, 31 January 2015

Spurge laurel

Peering out of the shadows in a dry, seemingly uninviting spot, you might find this rather handsome plant. In fact, the odds are stacked pretty heavily in favour of your coming across it – I don’t think there’s a garden I’ve worked in where I’ve failed to spy it lurking about furtively, though nobody ever remembers planting it (and, before you ask, no, I’m not responsible for spreading it about, like some latter-day Miss Willmott*). Ah – spurge! – you might think to yourself, and you could be forgiven for doing so. There’s something rather euphorbia like about its mounding habit, its serpentine, grey-brown stems topped by whorls of spatulate leaves. As with the spurge family, the sap is a skin irritant, but for all this, and despite its common name, it’s not kin to the euphorbiacae. Neither is it a laurel – to be honest, no one in their right mind would think it was, in spite of the dark, glossy evergreen leaves.

In late winter, the appearance of clusters of small, scented, lime green flowers nestled below the leaves give the final clue to the true identity. This is Daphne laureola, one of our two native daphnes, the other being the deciduous Daphne mezeureum, on whose bare stems fragrant pink blooms appear before the leaves in February.

Unsurprisingly, removed from its natural habitat Daphne laureola can become an invasive weed, and in Canada and the United States it romps through woodland, smothering native flora in much the same way as Rhododendron ponticum does in these islands, albeit with a less imposing presence – the daphne rarely gets much taller than 1 metre.

To keep it or dig it out? That rather depends on how much you like it. Given its ubiquity, I don’t think I’d paticularly seek it out in a nursery, although a slightly posher cultivar with frilly flowers, Daphne laureola subsp. philippi, offers a little more to the inveterate collector. If you find yourself in possession of a specimen, you can be reasonably assured that it won’t go crazy in a UK garden – although it can run from the roots, it’s unlikely to do so with alarming vigour, spread as it is primarily by birds who find its black berries (poisonous to humans) a choice treat in spring. Thought it might be considered a weed, it can form a rather attractive shrub, one which thrives in the kind of dry shade conditions that has other plants turning up their roots. If yours has obligingly plonked itself in a convenient position, I’d be tempted to leave it be, admiring its deep, glossy green foliage and revelling in the harmony between the dark leaves and the citrus green flowers in winter. More often than not, though, it’ll will have decided to grow in a particuarly inconvenient spot, getting up close and personal with your mexican orange blossom, in which case I’d hoik it out. Being rather deep rooted, a feature it shares with other daphnes, I’d also save myself the anguish of trying to nurse it through transplant shock, and wait for an obliging feathery friend to sow one in the right place.

Daphne laureola, bottom centre, trying hard to look like Choysia ternata
*Miss Ellen Willmott, 1858-1934, gun-toting plantswoman, gardener, influential member of the Royal Horticultural Society, and British eccentric. So enamoured was she of Eryngium giganteum, she was reputed to scatter its seeds in every garden she visited – the plant would mysteriously spring up several months later, earning it the soubriquet “Miss Willmott’s ghost”.