Victorian Ladies All in White

The Victorian ladies described here are actually  shrubs called Philadelphus.  Their common name is Mock Orange, and they can be found leaning, and lounging and flouncing their long green skirts starred with white floral embroidery all during May and June in these latitudes. They’re a bit self conscious, a bit apt to pose for the tableau vivants of a June garden.

But then, if you were that good looking, so would you.

Mock oranges have always frustrated me just a little bit.  Every time that I see one in  a garden bed or a shrub border I hurry over, ready to huff in that distinctive blend of honeysuckle/orange blossom/jasmine that is the hallmark of the shrub, but I am frequently foiled.  There are, you see, lots of kinds of Philadelphus and some of them have no smell at all.  Those, in my opinion, are duds.

Among the non-duds are the Lemoine hybrids.  They came about because a hybridizer Victor Lemoine (1823-1912 – hybridizers tend to be long-lived)  crossed Philadelphus mirophyllus with P. coronarius to create a whole new generation of the bushes.  Some like P. “Avalanche” have a distinctly fruity smell to them, something like pineapples, but others have a  floral smell, sort of a floral chord. P. “Virginal” which is probably the most common sort you find in Northeastern American gardens, has a slightly fruity smell to me, like jasmine and honeysuckle, though just a little more refined than honeysuckle and with less “throw”.  Then you can sometimes smell the rarities that have glorious scents, positive runs up the floral keyboard, starting at iris, passing through jasmine and culminating with a high note like gardenia.  That’s the case with the old variety “Bouquet Blanc” a white bouquet that perfumes a whole garden border if you’re lucky enough to sniff one out.  There’s not a whiff of musk to be found anywhere among their corsages.

Some of them can also be put to the very romantic use of creating a twilight  garden.  One of my sisters in law has grown an evening garden for years, including moonflowers in the show, but late flowering Philadelphus such as “Belle Etoile”  keep on flowering into July and will produce the strongest scents after dark, when with the help of a little garden lighting or a full moon, you can enjoy the slightly creepy show of fragrant creamy flowers glowing across an expanse of well mowed lawn.  It’s a bit more Wilkie Collins than Grand Guignol, but the effect is fine nonetheless.

There is one downside to Philadelphus and that is that they’re usually large.  I seldom see them much under six feet, and the garden hybrids can be tender, meaning that they don’t survive winter temperatures below 0 fahrenheit (-18 C) in garden zones 7-10 in the US, but the species bushes are tougher and will tolerate below zero temps and go from zones 5-9. They are undemanding plants, will tolerate some degree of shade although, like everything, they prefer sun, and one of my old garden books say they require a “sweet “soil.  I think this means a slightly basic soil which means lime- groan!

If you have a garden anything like the ones I have had, you will probably have acid clay because that is what most of us seem to end up with in the eastern US.  This in turn means digging deep, and soil exchanging, and compost shoveling, and breathing in the lime you are supposed to be dropping in the planting hole, and the process is never complete without tramping  the clay well into your front hall carpet.

If you are going to do anything, I say, do it completely, and the mud tracking is part of the process-in my case- you may be neater.  But remember, these are Victorian ladies, you have to watch your P’s and Q’s, though they no doubt, will exercise a Victorian lady’s privilege, and never let you know just what exactly happened in the shrubbery.

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6 thoughts on “Victorian Ladies All in White

  1. I definitely agree that fragrance is necessary for a plant. You’ve made me pine for my last garden, where I planted fragrant mock-orange and honeysuckle and roses etc. I hope that the later owners kept them and loved them too.

    And this blog has caused me a minor epiphany: my perfume interest increased once I no longer had my own garden! I’m surprised that that thought had never crystallised for me before, so thank you for provoking this insight.

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

    • True that gardening and perfume loving are at times inversely related. Whenever I’ve had a lot of garden to bustle about in, I’ve simply had less impulse to smell things in bottles, though I’ve adored things in bottles since childhood. And it’s odd how one can worry about the fate of gardens,whether or not the people who came after you watered the tree peonies or not. I hope the next owners of your garden took care of the honeysuckles and mock oranges.

  2. While I appreciate many different plants and flowers, and not always for their smell, I do love fragrant plants and if I had a choice, would tend to go for something with a lovely fragrance. Putting plants and perfume together, I think it really helps to identify and appreciate notes if one has a reference point, for example if you smell a lot of roses, or orange blossom, or crush mint, thyme or rosemary in your fingers.

    I feel bad because we’ve had a such a wet and miserable spring that we’ve hardly done anything with the garden this year and the snails have had a field day!

  3. But at the very least you have had enough rain. We here in New jersey have had day after day of sunshine, to such an extent that my roses have green fly (what we call aphids), and we are barely a month away from our yearly visitation of Japanese beetles! At least you know that your second flush of roses will be beautiful, and that the water loving perennials will be blooming well. I may have to take up cactus culture; such are the vicissitudes of global warming.

  4. Ah… we’ve been considering, for some time, planting bushes between the house and the farm shop, which is necessary but somewhat, er, utilitarian-looking. To say the least. I’ve been thinking old-school lilacs and The CEO is pulling for cheery but unscented forsythia, but I wonder if a scented variety of mock orange would do. We have plenty of room for the bushes. And our soil is clay, but very limey (well-limed? calcaraceous?). It’s all limestone caves and sinkholes around here.

    • If it’s sunny that will do alright. But these guys will grow to five feet and are deciduous, so not so pretty in winter or Fall. They are lovely from May to mid July, and I’d go for “Belle Etoile” the one with the pretty pink blush in the throat. Very floriferus and lovely smell. You should be able to find somebody who sells that without too much difficulty, another good one is “Sybille”, and it’s smaller, about 3 1/2 ‘ then there’s “Bouquet Blanc”, but that might take some tracking down. Envy you the space, but not the digging in clay soil!

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