How sweet the daphne smells

… and how poisonous it is.

A birthday present from Chris Waigl (plants and poetry, with something of an Edward Gorey twist) , this note:

I was thinking of you the other day when I remembered a little (somewhat twee) poem my mother liked. It’s from a German humorous herbarium (the book is called Heiteres Herbarium [‘Bright/Cheerful Herbarium’]) by someone with the extraordinarily Bavarian name Karl Heinrich Waggerl. The book’s still in copyright [and is described as lyric poetry], so there doesn’t seem to be much online. Apparently, it sold extremely well for a book of, at least on the surface, poetry.
The poem I was thinking of was about the pretty, traditionally medicinally used (and quite poisonous) Seidelbast (Daphne mezereum). Not native to the Americas and therefore not much talked about here. It has a ton (dozens) of common names in German. I knew it as Zeiland in Austria and Lorbeerkraut (lit. laurel herb) at home. Much lore and warnings. The poem is a warning, too, with a quasi-moral level of meaning and at the same time a … rhyme at the end that marks it as jocular.


Wie lieblich duftet uns im März
der Seidelbast! Doch immerwärts
ist er voll Gift und Galle,
weil wir, in diesem Falle,
das Wunder nur beschauen sollen,
(Man muß nicht alles kauen wollen!)

A clunky pretty literal translation, not in the form of a poem:

How sweet the daphne smells to us in March! But always beware it’s poison and gall/bile. Because of this we will only contemplate the miracle (you don’t want to chew everything!)

Things to talk about: the book; the plant; the author; an ear association of Der Seidelbast with the parody poem and song Die Flabbergast; and a thematic association of the plant with Nerium oleander.

The book. Chris’s photo of the title page:


The plant. From Wikipedia:

Daphne mezereum, commonly known as February daphne, mezereon, mezereum, spurge laurel or spurge olive, is a species of Daphne in the flowering plant family Thymelaeaceae [not a family previously covered on this blog; it’s #59], native to most of Europe and Western Asia, north to northern Scandinavia and Russia. In southern Europe it is confined to medium to higher elevations and in the subalpine vegetation zone, but descends to near sea level in northern Europe. It is generally confined to soils derived from limestone.

It is a deciduous shrub growing to 1.5 m tall. The leaves are soft, 3–8 cm long and 1–2 cm broad, arranged spirally on the stems. The flowers are produced in early spring on the bare stems before the leaves appear. They have a four-lobed pink or light purple (rarely white) perianth 10–15 mm diameter, and are strongly scented. The fruit is a bright red berry 7–12 mm diameter; it is very poisonous for humans, though fruit-eating birds like thrushes are immune and eat them, dispersing the seeds in their droppings.

Daphne mezereum is very toxic because of the compounds mezerein and daphnin present especially in the berries and twigs. If poisoned, victims experience a choking sensation. Handling the fresh twigs can cause rashes and eczema in sensitive individuals. Despite this, it is commonly grown as an ornamental plant in gardens for its attractive flowers.

From the Missouri Plant Finder:

Daphne mezereum, commonly called February daphne because of its late winter flowers, is a small deciduous shrub with an erect and bushy habit that typically grows to 3-5′ tall and as wide. It is native to forests, forest margins and shrubby areas in Europe and Western Asia. It was introduced into North America in colonial times resulting in naturalization in parts of Canada (Quebec and Ontario) and the U. S. (New England to New York and later to Ohio, Montana and Alaska)

In a more personal tone, from Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden website:

great shrub: fragrant daphne mezereum

WHAT’S THAT PERFUME? It’s always hard to believe you smell anything other than someone burning winter’s deposit of brush this time of year, but sweetness is in fact in the air. The first good whiff: Daphne mezereum, an old-fashioned shrub I’ve grown for decades but hardly ever find for sale, except perhaps as a vintage botanical print (alas, no scratch-and-sniff included).

The so-called February Daphne is more the March Daphne here [in the Hudson Valley of New York, bordering on the Berkshires of Massachusetts], but who can blame it for waiting until the glacier recedes? At chest-height, my one remaining old plant is a non-descript, upright creature with this single two-week moment to recommend it, though quite a moment it is.

The flowers (from purple to white) are followed by poisonous red fruits

A purple Daphne in Roach’s garden, paired with Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’ (Hinoki cypress or false cypress):


And the plant as an alpine wildflower, from the 21st edition of Schröter’s Alpen-Flora (1st ed. 1899; the book is discussed in a 7/6/11 posting of mine):


Plate 2. Alpen-Sträucher (Fortsetzung). Alpine Shrubs (Continued)

Fig. 2. Mezereum Daphne, Spurge-olive. The flowers appear at the beginning of the spring before the leaves; the red berries are poisonous. From the woods of the plains up to the stony pastures, slopes of the débris and amongst alpine Roses of the Alpine region up to 2100 m.

The author. On Waggerl, from German Wikipedia:

Karl Heinrich Waggerl, geboren als Karl Waggerl (* 10. Dezember 1897 in Bad Gastein; † 4. November 1973 in Schwarzach im Pongau), war ein österreichischer Schriftsteller. Mit 5 Millionen verkauften Büchern und Übersetzungen in mehr als einem Dutzend Sprachen zählt Waggerl zu den meistgelesenen deutschsprachigen Autoren des 20. Jahrhunderts.

Definitely a best-seller.

Die Flabbergast. What does Der Seidelbast remind you of? If you’re a certain sort of person, you’ll think of Dudley Moore’s riotous Die Flabbergast (a take-off on Schubert’s song Der Erlkönig), which you can watch here.

The oleander plant. Daphne is incrediby poisonous taken orally, and also has a seriously irritant sap. Jut like the much more familiar (but unrelated) plant oleander (9/9/15 discussion on this blog, in #11). From Rodale’s Organic Life site, in “Six Common Backyard Plants that Could Kill You”:

#1: Oleander. One of the most poisonous plants known, this evergreen shrub is commonly grown throughout warmer areas of the U.S. In California, it’s even grown along roadsides and used to decorate highway medians because it’s drought tolerant and deer won’t eat it. The showy and often fragrant flowers make this a popular ornamental for backyard landscapes, but care must be used to keep children and animals from eating any part of the plant, as all are poisonous. Ingesting even a small amount of the leaves can be lethal, or cause severe gastrointestinal and cardiac reactions.

Even oleander sap can cause skin irritations, numbness, and eye inflammation if it comes into contact with your hands or skin.

Oleander is everywhere around me here, in backyard plantings and on highways all over the place; it’s pretty, fragrant, and really tough. But I wouldn’t plant it in my garden if I had kids. Or daphne, for that matter: its bright red berries are incredibly attractive.

One Response to “How sweet the daphne smells”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On 6/18/20, this comment from Franz Tieber in Vienna:

    There is a quite good summary on Karl Heinrich Waggerl at,
    look up

    About the Dithering-grass:

    “Why–on a bright summer day–
    the quaking grass well quake so may?
    Deeply down it feels hell’s worm,
    in the air, above, God’s breathing storm.

    You, o human, with the weight of your brain,
    you do not feel that–it’s in vain.”

    I’m not sure whether my translation can fulfil Waggerl’s genius. But if my love for this poem serves the name recognition of its Austrian author, I’m quite content.

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