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 has grown into a fine bushy specimen in the shelter of an east-facing wall. Kent
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.