Late spring can be a letdown, when azaleas and lilacs fade away. But then, the plain green Philadelphus shrub transforms into a drift of snowy white blossoms. A heady, sweet scent fills the air when the flowers bloom. These lovely traits, and the shrub's easygoing nature, make mockorange a favorite to plant and to "pass along." Most American gardeners have childhood memories of these pretty scented blooms. Mockorange has been a favorite in our landscapes, since a "blossoming" of French cultivars in the late 1800s gave this shrub a certain je ne sais quoi.
The French connection- Hybrids from Victor Lemoine's nurseries
Mockorange has species native across the northern hemisphere. Admired for centuries for simple elegance of its flowers, mockorange was also considered a useful shrub. English herbalist John Gerard included mockorange in his extensive botanical book, Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, published in 1597. European mockorange species were well-known across Europe and Eurasia. By the 1700s, mockorange was a widely planted ornamental shrub in Europe. As European botanists explored America, they recognized new mockorange relatives.
In the mid 1800s, renowned hybridizer Victor Lemoine brought Philadelphus, from Europe and North America, to his nursery in Nancy, France. Exhaustive work under Lemoine's guidance gave rise to numerous French-named cultivars. Lemoine virtually set the gold standard for mockorange. His cultivars are still popular in the nursery trade nearly two hundred years later. 'Belle Etoile', 'Manteau d'Hermine', 'Sybille' and others are among the French hybrids, and currently recognized with the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit.
American natives, New World hybrids
North America has a wide assortment of native Philadelphus species. One or another is found in just about every corner of the continent. And with the demands of varying climes and soils come mockoranges with differences in size and foliage. Some of the New World species supplied important, diverse traits to Lemoine's mockorange gene pool. More recently, breeding programs in Canada and the United States have come up with stunning cultivars hardy to the ends of our ranges of heat and cold, damp and drought.
Choosing and caring for your Mockorange
Mockorange is very kind in its ability to thrive in almost any garden, and can be incredibly generous with its perfume. The shrub is adaptible to any moisture condition (short of swamp) and sun to part shaded sites. Insects or diseases are rarely a problem. Routine pruning means removing aging stems, just after flowering, to allow new growth. Lemoine, and now more modern hybridizers, have teased out the following variations in mockorange:
Flowers: single, double, fancier: Classic mock, like the one pictured above, has small clusters of single flowers, each with a spray of gold-tipped stamens. Double flowered 'Minnesota Snowbelle' is a readily available, quality cultivar, as are 'Virginal' and Manteau d'Hermine'. Even frillier, 'Snowflake' and 'Buckley's Quill' bear poofs or pompoms in the place of flowers.
Flower color: White. Blooms are a pure, glowing, snowy white. What color can be had comes in the form of a purple eye ('Belle Etoile') or rosy blotch ('Sybille') deep in the center of the flowers. Some cultivars are interestingly accented by either dark or silvery calyxes, cup like structures where petals attach to stem.
Foliage color: Classic mockorange has medium green leaves. 'Aureas' has golden foliage, glowing in spring but perhaps dull in hot summer zones. 'Variegata' has leaves edged in cream-white, 'Innocence' can have white splotches on the leaves. Southwest native microphyllus, or desert mockorange, is semi-evergreen with fine, small, grey-green leaves.
Form and size: Some can become quite large over time (deciduous shrubs have a way of doing that in many gardens.) 'Manteau d'Hermine' is petite and low arching. The rest of the cultivars span this range.
Fragrance: Fragrant mockorange is a true delight. 'Innocence' and 'Sybille' are noted for powerful perfume, among the many variously fragrant choices. You have to try pretty hard to get an unscented mockorange, but you can do it; species inodorus is so named for lack of scent.
As a pass along plant, mockorange transplants happily, with a vigorous root mass. It can also be grown from softwood cuttings in early summer, and from seed.
In the end, mockorange is best appreciated for its flowers and fragrance for about two weeks in spring. Some say mockorange, when not in bloom, is rather ordinary. Even woody plants expert Michael Dirr gives decidedly tepid praise to the mockoranges in general. But there is something wonderfully elegant about those simple, pure white flowers accented by gold tipped stamens: the sight of those blooms along with the heady scent, on a just-warm day in early June, is heavenly. Dirr would, if forced, choose 'Sybille' for his own garden. The cultivars named here are among those most praised, and may be seen in botanical gardens. If you're in London England with some time to kill in June, take the Philadelphus Walk at the Hinton Ampner Gardens. Not all mockorange cultivars that you may read about are readily available to the homeowner. Shop at quality nurseries, even online, using Dave's Garden PlantScout as a helpful resource. Read descriptions of varieties offered, and choose for overall size, shape, hardiness, and certainly scent. And wait for your garden's own moments of heaven on earth.
Dirr, Michael A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants; Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses (fifth edition) ISBN 0- 87563-800-7
Wyman, Donald. Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University Bulletin of Popular Information series 4, vol. IV, June 15, 1936 number 10 The Best Philadelphus, http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1936-4--the-best-philadelphus.pdf, accessed 5-2-2013
Photo by Elizabeth Lindhag, located at allfreedownloads.com