JARS v63n4 - Poet's Laurel (Danae racemosa) A Shade-loving Companion Plant for Rhododendrons

Poet's Laurel (Danae racemosa) A Shade-loving Companion Plant for Rhododendrons
Matt Warlick
Lewisville, North Carolina

Few evergreens, other than rhododendron, can prosper in a low light environment. Plants in the ericaceous family, like Pieris , Kalmia and Leucothea work well, but most species have a medium to coarse texture such as Acuba and Mahonia . An excellent plant to mix into the shade garden that has a somewhat finer texture is Danae racemosa . This evergreen plant can tolerate the deepest of shade and has glossy dark green foliage. Two common names for this species are "poet's laurel" and "Alexandrian laurel." The genus Danae (daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos) is derived from Greek mythology. Another interesting tidbit is that poet laureates in roman times were said to have worn this foliage as laurel wreathes. Alexander the Great may have used it for victory wreathes since it is native to the region where he fought his battles.

The plant is native to northern Iran and Asia Minor and is hardy in zones 7(b) -9. Plants were exposed to -23°C (-10°F) here in North Carolina and only suffered foliar damage. A winter hardiness test is being done in the gardens of Richmond Hill Inn, which is located in the mountains of Asheville, NC. Hunter Stubbs, the horticulturist in charge of the gardens, said the plants have over-wintered fine the past few years. There can be some foliage discoloration during colder winters but the buds in the ground haven't been affected. Danae does not suffer during times of drought and can tolerate a wide range of soils, but like most plants it prefers a moist well-drained soil.

Poet's laurel has long stems that arise from the crown in spring and shoot up like bamboo or asparagus before arching over. Most plants reach 0.6-0.9 m (2-3 ft) tall with a 0.9-1.2 m (3-4 ft) spread. I have seen some mature plants reach 1.2 m (4 ft) tall and have a spread of 1.8 m (6 ft). The leaves, which are modified stems called phylloclads or cladophylls, are refined with a graceful tapered, ovate leaf shape. This foliage has been used in the florist industry throughout the world for years and is called Italian ruscus. Once cut, the foliage will remain pretty and does not wilt for a long time.

Danae racemosa above a hosta 
and holly fern and to the left, a confederate jasmine.
Danae racemosa (upper right), above a hosta and holly fern and
to the left, a confederate jasmine ( Trachelospermum jasminoides ).
Photo by Matt Warlick

The pendulous chains of green-yellow flowers are not large and hang down from the leaf axils. They are shaped like small bells and are similar to those of Pieris . Although the flowers are somewhat insignificant, the 6-9 mm (1/4-3/8”) berries that are produced are a beautiful red in the fall and can persist for several months during the winter. Fruit are green in the summer but change either to a red or an orange phase before ripening to a nice red. On older plants. I have seen up to ten berries in a group, so fruiting can put on quite a show.

Rhododendron, at least most varieties I've seen growing here in central North Carolina, tend not to keep their dark green color when placed in too much hot afternoon sunlight. This is also true of poet’s laurel, so when placing them in the garden, be sure not to give them too much direct sun. Morning sun for an hour or two and the rest of the day in deep shade or filtered light will help keep the foliage looking nice. Danae does have natural stem dieback, so the occasional stem that turns a duller green or that develops leaf spot should be removed.

Utilize the arching habit of Danae to soften up lines while spilling over walls and sidewalks, or where there are large rocks in the shade garden that seem to jump out of the earth, this plant can help ease that transition. Having poet's laurel on the slopes of small creek beds creates an image of perfect foliage flowing into the stream. Filling in shaded areas where Hydrangea, ferns and hostas prosper creates huge texture changes and provides interest in winter while other plants are sleeping. Another application would be to plant Danae beneath large rhododendrons or mountain laurels in the woodland garden, as this shade lover can prosper under their canopy.

Difficulties in propagation and the slow growth rate of young seedlings have kept this plant somewhat rare in the nursery industry. The plant has to be propagated from seed or from division of older plants. Seedling production is very slow, and sometimes seedlings have to be discarded, after years of growth, because shoots just will not elongate properly. If you are interested in finding out more about this species, and how to purchase quality plants that will develop into large clumps over time, please contact me.

Matt Warlick
Matt Warlick owns Shady Days Nursery & Landscape in Lewisville, NC.