Thursday, 3 November 2016

White Flowers (and Other Colours in the Garden)

Yes, colour (or its absence) in the garden again.
I've just been chatting to an enthusiastic gardener - Merryn Maher of Banool, who I interviewed for Country Life Yarra Valley and Ranges, and found that roses were not her favourite plants, as I'd been led to expect, but a more subtle effect. No, as the weather warms, and her (large) garden becomes another room to live in, the hydrangeas begin flowering and she has white ones including oak-leaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) and Hydrangea arborescens `Annabelle', planted in masses in beds designed by renowned designer Paul Bangay. These are her favourite plants - in her favourite time of year. White flowers under large shady trees; a garden of green and white. (And her favourite rose? A David Austin rose, `Abraham Darby', which has large cupped flowers of pink-apricot, which she loves for its rich fruity fragrance. Like other roses and flowers near her front door, it's chosen for its colour, its likeness to the honey-colour of the old stone house. `Abraham Darby' has a long flowering season, and the first flower has just come out on the sunny spring day I visit. Merryn picks a flower and we both inhale deeply with appreciation.) 

After the interview we reminisced about our favourite British gardens and discussed Hidcote Manor (the first serious garden of colours, and a great example) and then "The White Garden" at Sissinghurst Castle - and the importance of green (and lots of it) and structure in a white garden. (Should anyone else try a white garden? Now that's a whole extra story.) 

Unusually this gardener is keen on interesting plants (Paris, Trillium) yet employed an outstanding designer too, for structure and for plant palette too (and `masses, large numbers for quick effect').

Coincidentally she tells me of her love of white flowers just when my own garden has been filled - surreptitiously, it seems, by a glorious surfeit of dazzling bridal blooms (I notice when I get home) - the heavily-fragrant Mexican orange blossom (Choisya), the snowy Viburnum plicatum (top) and the dogwood laden with large flowers of purity, named - unfortunately - `Eddie's White Wonder'. There's the last of the Narcissus too (the Poet's daffodil, N. poeticus - why does this always make me think of the northern England's daffy-down-dilly, Wordsworth's daffodils, which are probably N. pseudonarcissus? The wildness, the simplicity, or the fact of being a species? Or just a love of very local common names; and they don't get much better than daffy-down-dilly).
Grey leaf campion (Lychnis) has white flowers just beginning its spring season; it's a sweet, subtle little plant that seems to be perennial for me, and self-sows so prolifically that it could easily become a weed - but I don't let it get a firm foot hold in. (There's the very pretty rose campion with deepest pink-cerise flowers but once you have that in your garden - it's there forever, and for me, when it's next to orange flowers, the effect jars badly; the flowers are swearing at each other. No, I may have very few red or orange flowers in the garden, but only the white form of campion for me, thank you. Just in case.)
Pure white are the first of the bearded iris, too (above), which have just unfurled their flags; these came from my sister. I love them.
(There's still lots of blue too: bugle (Ajuga (left) - covered in orange butterflies), Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and the first of the iris: mauve Pacific coast types, deep purple ones and a tall lilac iris, delicate-looking, tolerating the damp soil well and oh-so-pretty by the soft purple front gate. Along the front path, amongst the bugle, are windflowers (Anemone coronaria, so hardy) blue and white and single, my preference, and the last of the white tulips.)
So I'm looking at my white flowers, and my garden, with a fresh eye, which is always useful. For some people white is a non-colour, I know, and a let-down. But think how they (the flowers, not the people) emerge at dusk with a flourish, a `Here I Am' as the other colours recede.
For the lovers of green-on-green gardens, any flowers are a distraction; and if they're exotic flowers then lovers of native gardens - still so in vogue - will be against so many of them, which seems such a pity. (Indigenous is different, to me. There's a meaningful purpose to an indigenous corner of a garden, making it a wildlife habitat, perhaps, if plants are chosen carefully; but native gardens of plants from all over Australia? (Including plants from deserts and rainforests.) And no other country? Why? By the way, I use Correas and Scaevolas in my designs - because they are great plants - I am not averse to native plants of course.)
It's mid-spring - and the plants seem to know it. The Mexican orange blossom is so laden with blooms that the branches are arching over in a way I've never seen before, the Viburnum is dazzling and the dogwood (below) is cascading with its unusual flowers, each with 4 white bracts, more than ever before. Do I say thank you to the copious rain that never seems to stop?
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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