In Love with Daphne

The plant, not the movie character!

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY MATT COLLINS

Daphne, Daphne, Daphne…for many years the name conjured images not of a beautiful flower but of Jack Lemmon in the movie Some Like It Hot. What can I say? I’m a movie buff. And how could anyone not love this 1959 Billy Wilder comedy (cowritten by I.A.I. Diamond)? Besides, I had heard rumors that Daphne the plant was difficult in pots and finicky once planted. Daphne the “girl” (actually Jack Lemmon in drag) was an easier concept to embrace. Any commitment to Daphne the girl could be ended by changing the channel. But Daphne the plant would require an actual long-term commitment. Speaking of changing channels…

In 1999, I moved from Brooklyn, New York, to another Brooklyn—one located in a quiet corner of Connecticut. There I opened Quackin’ Grass, a nursery specializing in a broad range of hardy plants, both herbaceous and woody. Since Quackin’ Grass had an emphasis on unusual selections, I apprehensively decided to order a few Daphnes. The shrubs arrived among a throng of other companions from the plant world, just as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (Jerry and Joe, but now with the assumed identities of Daphne and Josephine) mingled among an all-girl touring jazz band (Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators) on the train platform prior to embarking for a gig. When the delivery guy handed them to me—the shrubs, not the musicians—my grip grew tenative. It wasn’t love at first sight, folks. Rather, it was fear—fear that they would be rotten in a month’s time, their green leaves (and my money) crumbled to compost.

It wasn’t love at first sight, folks. It was fear.

I was sure I would undoubtedly murder those poor plants, sending them to early graves. Why, I was just like the Mafia in the movie, which wanted to kill Jerry and Joe (now Daphne and Josephine) for having unfortunately witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. With a nervous gulp, I placed the pots in the shrub section of my retail area.

Some did sell that first summer. When customers asked me about their cultural requirements, I would stare wide-eyed and mutter things like “Uhhhhhh,” “Jeeeeeeeez,” and “Derrrrrrrr.” I’d start thinking, 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…That’s better. Then I’d go back to muttering the language of the daft.

To my astonishment, the plants that didn’t sell didn’t rot. In fact, most flowered—and had a heavenly fragrance. “I bet Daphne the girl didn’t smell this good,” I mused, “except, of course, to Osgood Fielding III” (played by Joe E. Brown). Come to think of it, Osgood’s trademark open-mouth gape (emitting a sound not unlike a trumpet in Sweet Sue’s all-girl jazz band) resembled my gaping maw when I tried to answer customer’s questions.

But, ah—the delicious perfume of these remarkable shrubs! It was fully as enticing to me as Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe) was to Joe, who at that moment was hiding in plain sight as Josephine on the train…come to think of that, just as I was hiding in plain sight as a “nursery professional.” Oh, dear. But in that moment something changed—not in the movie, rather in my being. I decided to go for it—to embrace Daphne the genus. Daphne the girl faded from view. Off went the television. Out came the books. I was ready to commit.

That first season came to a close. I turned the pots on their sides in an unheated greenhouse and crossed my fingers. All but one survived the cold months!

Spring of the second year rolled around. Armed with the book knowledge I had acquired in winter, I planted one Daphne genkwa, the blue Daphne, and a beat-up D. cneorum var. pygmaea, the rose Daphne, in a new sun-blazed cacti and succulent garden. Both plants have thrived in this environment for six years. Interestingly, though I lost the blue in the winter of 2007, she magically sent up four new shoots from her roots. So, in place of one plant I now had four! And while the blue Daphne was resurrecting, the rose Daphne continued to grow better and better in its full sun sanctuary. Hmm, some do like it hot!

A few years ago I had the honor and good fortune to meet John Bieber, then president of the Daphne Society, at a State Chapter Rock Garden Society meeting in New Haven, Connecticut. Of course, when I say he was president of the Daphne Society, I mean a society for the shrubby thyme relatives, not one to admire Daphne the movie character. (Is there one? Can I join?) John suggested that I consider propagating Daphnes, thereby making the genus as a whole more available to the public. I found this prospect alluring, just as Osgood Fielding III found Daphne alluring. I even agreed to it. Immediately, though, I had second thoughts. Loud second thoughts. (What are you saying? I yelled in my head. Idiot! You should be committed. Not John. You.)

John sent a generous quantity of species and cultivars. With equal parts of wonder and dismay, I dipped them into plant hormones and stuck the wet ends into tube trays filled with seedling mix and perlite. Surprisingly, most rooted quickly under mist. They remained in this minimally heated greenhouse all winter. The following spring, I potted them into four-inch peat squares. And you know what? They’ve grown well—spectacularly well.

John sent two more batches of cuttings the following summer. Thanks to his gentle nudging and assurance, my confidence has slowly grown. Now when I hear the name Daphne, most often the image of one of these remarkable 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. I feel I’ve become a half-decent grower and propagator.

Now look: I know full well there will be difficulties and disappointments, many coming from blunders into which I will stumble just as the “girls” stumbled in their new high heels. And I remember Osgood Fielding III, who hounded Daphne mercilessly to get “her” to marry him. I think of the final scene of Some Like It Hot when Daphne tries to thwart Osgood’s advances by insisting that she cannot marry him because she wouldn’t fit well into Osgood’s mother’s wedding dress, she’s not a natural blonde, she smokes all the time, she’s been living with a saxophone player, she can never have children—none of which deter him. 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 fear-based excuses I had for not attempting these remarkable plants. True, I am far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t accept a challenge and strive forward. Shouldn’t we all?

You know, folks, I think I may be able to enjoy both Daphne the girl and Daphne the plant. What can I say? Some like it all.


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