Wednesday 14 March 2012

The sublime scent of Daphne

Intimations that winter is ending come in the scent of our English courtyard garden. The fragrant Daphne Odora blooms in February, its tiny pink and white flowers releasing a rich aroma of sugared lemon and creamy vanilla with a zesty edge of narcissus and a hint of warm ginger: an opulently romantic scent that blends sweetness and exquisite sharpness.

Once smelled, never forgotten. My moment of discovery was at Kew Garden’s Wisley outpost in Surrey – I was literally stopped in my tracks by the fragrance as I passed. It’s a source of some gardening pride that the baby shrub I planted shortly after we arrived at our house in Kent has grown into a fine bushy specimen in the shelter of an east-facing wall.

There was delight too in discovering the name of the plant, as Daphne had long been known to me in another context. One of the first books I ever read by myself, aged about five, was Tales of Long Ago, a collection of Greek and Roman myths retold by Enid Blyton. In that book, Daphne was the heroine of one of my favourite stories  – The Maiden of the Laurel Tree.

Daphne was a wood nymph chased by Apollo, though in Blyton’s version for children, the chase was in order to propose marriage, rather than attempted rape. When she called to the nature gods for help, they responded by turning her into a beautiful laurel tree. I still vividly remember the mounting horror of reading how Daphne found she could no longer run; her slender feet grew out and extended themselves deep into the earth as roots, bark began to cover her body, and she stood helplessly watching her arms grow into branches and leaves as the transformation took place. Beware of what you wish for, the tale seemed to say: don’t ask for help without having a good idea of what form that help might take!

Say what you like about Enid Blyton – even as a child, I found her prodigious output very variable: as exciting as the adventure stories could be, they were also very repetitive, and Noddy was boring beyond belief – but Tales of Long Ago showed the best of her. She had a way of writing that drew young readers in and made them want to read by themselves. And I can’t be the only person of a certain age who retains a good knowledge of the basic classical myths thanks to this publication! 

I tried to find the actual book but couldn’t, though I know it’s here somewhere among the thousands of books in this house. Andrew Lang’s The Brown Fairy Book, another childhood book is prettier anyway. This edition was published by Longman’s in 1934. The illustration plates are by Henry Ford - the kind of pictures that take you far away into a thrilling imaginative world, and bring back all kinds of memories and associations when you happen across them as an adult.


Joseph said...

Hi, Deborah! I'm here from the Author Karma group! I'm glad to be a part of such a beautiful blog! I hope you can come and stop by mine (:


Yvonne Osborne said...

What a great story and beautiful flower. Be careful of what you wish for indeed. I've tried to find old books down at the farm, too, but can't come up with the one I want most, Ramona. I've always wondered what happened to it, the first book that made me cry. Thanks for showing me Daphne.

My Sinfonia said...

I am very much captivated by the daphne odora too. I have a shrub at the front door and when its a warm spring night, its like stepping into the most fragrant dream. Mei

Libby said...

I really loved this post! It is funny how a scent can transport you back...I was noticing it today too. I smelled the first spring flowers and I was back in Kent -- Kent, Ohio though, not your Kent. That is where I spent my childhood. I enjoyed the pictures and the post!

Beverly Diehl said...

Always loved the story of Daphne, even though it's not really a happy ending for her. (Or is it? maybe she finds a way to become human again, later.)

Picked up my copy of The Lantern tonight while doing some other shopping, can't wait (though I must) to read it, though I swear I could smell the lavender fields.

Yanting Gueh said...

I enjoyed Enid Blyton's stories when I was a child, but I haven't read The Maiden of the Laurel Tree. I must get to it soon. Flowers in Spring is one of the prettiest sights ever. :)

Sacha said...

Hello Deborah
Thank you for this wonderful post, you read is a pleasure
The flowers of spring with their delicate fragrance cohort in the first warm breezes of the season are my favorite
Enid Blyton has beràé my childhood! I liked to put in a corner and read his stories that made ​​me dream a beautiful memory of my childhood ..
Deborah good weekend thank you for this beautiful and delicious spring ticket
A + + Sacha

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