I'll always remember the day I first spotted my firs Edgeworthia, tucked beside the narrow, dark, windy path that use to take you beside the old lath house at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. There it was, naked as a proverbial jaybird in the middle of winter, except for the terminal flowers which stared back like 'okay, you found me.' This began a life quest to learn more about this amazing daphne relative. I started by taking cuttings from the Arboretum plant and subsequently planting them all around the NC State Fairgrounds, where I worked at the time. Unfortunately, they all fell victim to subsequent landscape directors who didn't realize what they had.
My path of edgeworthia discovery first took me first to Georgia, where a native population of edgeworthia had reportedly been discovered. My research there led to the house of a former US ambassador, who had brought the plant back from China. Evidently a few of its seedlings had been washed down a nearby stream where they were discovered by native plant enthusiasts, assuming them to be native. Next was a trip to the Kingston, Washington, garden of plantsman, Dan Hinkley, who had a large specimen in his garden. The Hinkley plant, Edgeworthia chrysantha, had much larger foliage and flowers than the Raulston Arboretum's Edgeworthia papyrifera, combined with an incredible sweet floral fragrance. About this time, Piroche Nursery of Canada began importing the first large shipment of edgeworthias from China. I was fortunate to cherry pick a particularly large-leafed, large-flowered specimen for my home garden, which I still grow today under the name Edgeworthia chrysantha 'Snow Cream'. In 1996, I headed to Yunnan, China to see the plant in the wild and while I never found it in its natural habitat, I did get to see a huge specimen in the Kunming Botanic Garden, which was identical to the plant that I was growing at home.
The taxonomy of edgeworthias has been enough to drive even the most stable of us insane. Despite having only 4 species in the genus, agreement on which is which seems to change more often than some women change shoes. Current thinking is that what we grow as Edgeworthia chrysantha is a tetraploid (a double set of chromosomes) and the smaller-growing, non-fragrant plant known as Edgeworthia papyrifera is simply a diploid form of the same species. The other species...the evergreen E. gardneri, E. albiflora and E. eriosolanoides don't appear to be in cultivation.
So, what's so exciting about edgeworthias? All summer, the 8' tall x 10' wide, umbrella shaped shrub, supported by a smooth brown trunk, is adorned with tropical-looking, plumeria like leaves. The foliage drops in mid December to reveal both the wonderful bark and the large, silvery, terminal flower buds. The flower buds open steadily from mid January to early April, producing an overwhelmingly fragrant display of pendent, golden yellow flowers. Although there is an orange-red form, Edgeworthia 'Akebono' (aka 'Red Dragon') on the market, it is unfortunately the non-fragrant shorter diploid form. The most exciting new development that I've seen in edgeworthias is a hybrid of the large tetraploid form and the shorter diploid form, which I hope will be named and released in the near future.
You're probably wondering about a common name, but unfortunately, plants must become common before they get a common name and edgeworthia isn't there yet. That being said, we can take care of that right here by anointing it with the common name of winter false daphne. As long as the soil is well drained, edgeworthia grows equally as well for us in half-day sun or shade. I can think of few plants that add as much to the winter garden as the incredible Edgeworthia chrysantha and hope you all will add one to your garden.