Wednesday 23 January 2019

Don't mock: Philadelphus has great scent and versatility

Dramatic: Philadelphus
Dramatic: Philadelphus

Gerry Daly

Mock orange blossom, or just mock orange as it is often known, is not a very flattering name as the word 'mock' is a bit derogatory. Used in the sense it is used with plants means 'imitation' or 'resemblance', neither of which are much better.

This linking with orange blossom is an attempt to exploit the reputation of the true orange blossom for sweet scent - but since most people in this country have never smelled the perfume of orange blossom we have to take it on trust. Incidentally, philadelphus means lover of woods, and we see wild philadelphus appearing in clearings in light woodland and scrubby areas.

It is well capable of growing to 4m tall and wide. But large gardens need large plants to fill space in borders - and even where space is limited, a big philadelphus can be pruned to be like a small tree.

Philadelphus produces masses of white blossoms. When fully grown, and in good soil and sunshine, the whole bush can be covered with flowers in a dramatic show. This is a summer sight with clouds of sweet perfume being wafted away on warm breezes. The air of a garden filled with the scent of roses and philadelphus on a warm summer's day is unforgettable. When the flowers are at their peak, the bush can take on a greyish-white look, a strange mixture of green, grey shadow and white or creamy flowers.

Some of the older kinds, such as philadelphus coronarius, should be pruned annually after flowering, taking out some old shoots to reduce size. If this is done annually, the bush does not grow to much more than about 2m. One of the most widely available is 'Beauclerk' with large white single flowers, flushed in the centre with pink, reaching 3m. 'Virginal' is more vigorous. This one has double, very fragrant white flowers. 'Belle Etoile' has an attractive arching habit which makes it about twice as wide as its 2m height. It has single, cupped white flowers with a pale purple mark in the centre and is very fragrant. The common mock orange, philadelphus coronarius, is a big grower with small creamy-white flowers and very good scent. There is a golden-leaved form of this which does well in light shade.

Of the smaller kinds, suitable for a border of any size, 'Sybille' is about chest-high and has an arching habit of growth with large white flowers. 'Mont Blanc' is upright but small, about 1m, with masses of flowers. 'Manteau d'Hermine' is broad but low with double flowers. 'Avalanche' arches dramatically with masses of small flowers, looking a bit like arching escallonia.

Philadelphus is easy to grow in any ordinary soil. If the soil is too rich, it tends to grow taller and more leafy with fewer flowers. It flowers best in full sunshine, but tolerates shade quite well. For this reason, it has often been placed towards the back of a border. The smaller varieties must be given full sunshine.

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