Wednesday, 12 August 2015

White Daphne and Variegation

`One swallow does not a summer make’.
And a garden patch with 4 types of white-flowering plants (with a good dose of green) does not make an homage to that holiest of grails, the White Garden at Sissinghurst Garden (`English dream made flesh’ – Monty Don I believe) in Kent, UK.
There’s a white (non-variegated*) daphne surrounded by dwarf single dahlias (possibly Bambino, and definitely non-staking) and white sedum (recently divided into more pieces and replanted) all anchored by several  Helleborus x sternii `Ashbourne Silver’ with delicate silvery tracing on the leaves; with a sweep of double white hellebores on the other side of the path.
In fact I’m not sure how it happened.
It may sound pallid, or restful, or in need of spice; but with plenty of green this little area sits well between the pinks of one garden bed – cyclamen, colchicum, trout lilies and peonies under trees; and the next, which has blues mainly – camassias and scillas (and daffodils) under white dogwoods.
Apart from a bit of messy late-autumn dahlia down time and – rare! – lack of interest in spring (easily solved by planting some of my countless potted bulbs) it’s a garden with something happening most of the time. Right now it’s that daphne, just good old Daphne odora alba, lemon-touched scent pouring from the flowers, a plant recovering from unfortunate wallaby-pruning.
Daphne – when larger than mine – like to be pruned, and this is so easy – just trim some for a vase every week or 2 for a magical posy and voilà! - the pruning is done.
It was a bit hard to find, actually.
*Every white daphne in the nurseries seems to be variegated, with a ribbon of white around each leaf; to my eye this just looks fussy as a shrub (although just acceptable in a tiny bunch; these blooms (above) came from the plant in my mothers garden, an English botanist’s garden, full of treasures). In the UK variegated leaves brighten up dull winter gardens, so they are more popular. (It’s hard to imagine a winter garden without showy camellias, but our winter gardens `seem a bit make-believe’ – British Professor James Hitchmough.) Australians, if you’ll forgive the generalisation, are said to dislike variegated plants (although this is changing). So much so that at a landscape design conference some years ago one of the Brits actually said that he realised he couldn’t use the `V’ word! Hostas and cyclamen are the clear exceptions.
And we don’t need the variegation – with good planning, there’s always interest in the garden, so the receding daphne (for example) is not a problem; rather it’s a good backdrop to new interest (flowers, leaves) as the seasons turn.
I gardened for my parents-in-law for a time about 2 decades ago or more and I think the best thing I introduced was a sweep of pink daphne, just Daphne odora, curving nicely with the shape of the garden bed (fortunately raised in their appalling clay).
But if I were to make an homage it would be – somehow – to Villa d’Este at Tivoli outside Rome: the level with little fountains, moss and stone. That’s my favourite garden (to date) and it reminds me how unimportant flowers are – but how vital (masses of) green is to any landscape that calls itself a garden.

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

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