It’s dawn and I’m peeping out the window; the only flowers to be seen are white ones. Generally it’s at dusk that I see this phenomenon of advancing white blooms when all else retreats from the eye, in this quiet light.
I love white flowers: their purity, their contrast to green, and their ability to lighten a garden picture if used carefully. (Pop them in with red flowers and you’ve got a council bedding scheme. That’s fine, you should be allowed to love your garden however you want, just don’t ask me to admire that particular brash colour scheme.)
Even with green I think the ratio needs to be 10% white to 90% green and it’s with interest that I look at my photos of Sissinghurst’s white garden – the first and best – with its touch of grey and, I think, silver, and modify my ratio to 10% white, 10% grey/silver, 80% green – but still, importantly, lashings of green. (And here I may annoy some – who dearly love this garden – by commenting that the central climbing rose tips the balance when it flowers: all those blooms! But walk beneath and fix the eyes on the green hedges and they recover.)
Just now the super-tough mock orange (above, Philadelphus) are flowering, flinging perfumed joy about the garden. My only evergreen one (P. mexicanus) has creamy blooms but just now they look almost white, gleaming in the early diffuse light. Tallest P. `Natchez’ has nearly finished flowering, a lovely thing but a bit embarrassing a week ago: so covered in flowers, 2 of them just touching and with a pale pink deciduous azalea at their feet, now over a metre high, sadly power-flowering at the same time, and popping out Jack-in-the box style between them; all too much, like wearing a wedding dress to a barbeque. (Or too much tattoo displayed at...a christening.) What to do?
Dwarf ones are pretty, but `Silver Showers’ and`Belle Etoile’, Im high, are less fragrant.
Other early morning treats include Orlaya (top, like a Queen Anne’s Lace on steroids and a favourite since seeing it in gardens in the UK and, more importantly, growing wild in the Mediterranean area), silver-leaved Lychnis (which self-sows; never introduce the handsome magenta one to your garden if you care about virulent pink next to orange, red or…anything) and the last of the dogwoods (Cornus `Eddies White Wonder’, a great plant with a less than great name).
Oak-leaf hydrangeas will provide white flowers in summer (wallaby-willing) and a packet of white Cosmos is sitting in the laundry awaiting sowing (scattering, really) for autumn flowers of the tint some say is not a colour.
At this hour the change in perception is quite magical; in daylight a brightly coloured flower may be most noticeable (see Flanders poppies, above) while white retreats. At dusk, in moonlight, the colour disappears; white flowers become luminescent and stand out like glowworms. Make that white flower a perfumed one – star jasmine, bouvardia, mock orange (generally a large shrub – use with care in city gardens), Mexican orange blossom or a gardenia in a pot – and then plonk a chair by it at dusk. It’s another way to love the garden (or courtyard or balcony); just add some mosquito repellant (and I don’t know yet how well these work really): Pelargonium citrosum `Van Leenii’, fennel or Balm of Gilead (Cedronella canariensis) and voila.
Jill Weatherhead is garden designer, horticulturist and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design (www.jillweatherhead.com.au) working in Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges and Victoria.