A Gardening Journal

Bud Watch: February Daphne

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Winter is growing colder than ever, but the flower buds of February daphne are undaunted. Their green calyxes have already pushed aside the dark protective bud scales. Temperatures in the single digits tonight, again? Not a problem.

 

Impressive—and gratifying for humans, like this gardener, already growing weary of this Winter. But what's in it for the shrub? The weather seems too cold for anything other than chickadees and deer, neither of which would pollinate the tiny flowers these buds will mature to. February isn't likely to be any milder than January. Are any insect pollinators active in such cold weather?

 

Or are other factors nudging these buds into action? The path from bud emergence to full-on flowering might not be the straight and simple one it is with, say, roses. Their buds appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and they mature to flowers steadily, directly, even quickly. The entire process might take a month. 

 

With "February" daphne, the path could be more of a meander. Buds are emerging in January because, duh, they'll mature to flowers in February—but only in milder climates. If you're gardening in Seattle, "February" daphne really does flower in February. In New England? The last half of April. These buds have emerged two months and more before the weather is mild enough for the insect pollinators their flowers will depend on to buzz over for a visit. It might be cool, even below freezing at night, but who cares as long as it warms up during the day?

 

Meanwhile, the buds have gotten ready on schedule. We're all lucky that they happen to be so resistant to freezing that the bone-chilling weather they've emerged into doesn't faze them.

 

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With the flowers unlikely to emerge for months, the shrub is able to provide this show of green buds the whole time. In mild climates where February is Spring-like, and February-flowering daphne can keep to its namesake schedule, the bud show might last only a few weeks. The time from bud emergence to full flowering might be as quick as it is for roses.

 

Although I do hope to garden in England or Seattle in my next life, it's nice to know that the show of February daphne is so much longer and more interesting here in New England. Buds in January, flowers in April: Four months of "Look! I'm going to flower—and now, I AM in flower" instead of just one or two.

 

But this question is still on the table. It clearly isn't gentle Spring weather that has enticed these buds. Indeed, they seem unaffected by the weather to the point of obliviousness or even disdain. What is enticing them to burst through those protective brown scales?

 

My hunch is day length. Winter solstice, December 21, is the shortest day of the year; sunset here was at 4:17 PM. Every day since then has been longer: the sun set a bit later and it rises a bit sooner. At first, the days are lengthened by only a few seconds, but each day, the rate of day-lengthening increases, as well. By late January, each day is now nearly two minutes longer than the one before. 

 

Those seconds add up: Sunrise today was 7:07 Am, and sunset was at 4:49 PM, making the day over a half hour longer than on December 21. By this time in February, the sun will rise at 6:32 AM, and won't set until almost 5:30 PM. The day will be over an hour longer.

 

The buds of February daphne, then, begin to emerge when the days are about a half hour longer than that of Winter solstice. Weather permitting, the flowers emerge when the days are about an hour longer. Weather not permitting? The buds can hang around, week after week—month after month—until it does.

 

Impervious, durable, flexible: What a combination. Another shrub has become a role model.

 

Here's how to grow February daphne, Daphne mezereum f. alba.

 

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