There are times in the gardening calendar when it’s a struggle to find a ‘plant of the moment’ but in burgeoning June with flowers at every turn it is much less of a challenge. I try to pick plants for my ‘Plant of the Month’ posts that are ‘good doers’, as Alan Titchmarsh would say, and therefore will work well in small gardens. However, occasionally a plant might sneak in that doesn’t fit this criteria and the choice for this post is in that category.
Philadelphus is a plant that means a lot to me. We had one growing by the garden gate when I was a child. I don’t know which one it was but it was about 5ft tall and would be smothered in beautiful ivory flowers in early summer. I loved standing by the gate and inhaling the intoxicating perfume reminiscent of orange blossom, hence its common name the mock orange. But, for some reason my dad took against this shrub and with his ‘slash and burn’ policy towards gardening (I really have no idea where my green genes come from) its days were numbered. Many a plant went the same way, Forsythia, Buddleia, Weigela, I could go on, all to be replaced, and it pains me to say this, by . . . conifers.
Now I’ll freely admit for ten and a bit months of the year a Philadelphus shrub is a fairly nondescript looking plant. Its season of interest is short, flowering from June into July, it’s deciduous, its mid green leaves are not particularly interesting and neither is its form. Garden designers would say it was the wrong plant to use, especially in a small garden, suggesting something like Choisya instead, which is evergreen and produces scented flowers for a much longer period. And to be honest, I agree with them but gardening isn’t always about the perfect design and the perfect plant for the perfect place, which can sometimes result in ‘designing by numbers’. Plants can mean things to people and therefore don’t fit these logical principles. This is why you can often tell the gardens that have been designed by someone for a client and the gardens that have evolved and have been created by the owners. A Philadelphus might not have been the ‘right’ choice for my small front garden but it is the scent from my childhood, a time when I was discovering the natural world and plants and learning to love them and for those reasons it was inevitable that when I took on my first garden a Philadelphus would find its way in there.
The intention was to follow some sort of logic and I chose the compact and double-flowered ‘Manteau d’Hermine’ however, when it flowered I discovered that the nursery must have labelled it up incorrectly as mine wasn’t double-flowered. After some research I found that I had actually bought Philadelphus x lemoinei, a hybrid created by Victor Lemoine in 1884 when he crossed Philadelphus microphyllus and Philadelphus coronarius. Not only is it not double-flowered, it isn’t dwarf either. I could do a whole post on garden centres and nurseries labelling plants incorrectly. Anyway, it is not a complete disaster as with a bit of judicious pruning I should be able to maintain my Philadelphus in the years to come. In some ways growing this variety is better as the simplicity of its single flowers are much more attractive to bees and hoverflies. My plant, lemoinei, grows to about 1.5 metres tall with a similar spread so is still manageable in a small space but for those of you looking for something smaller ‘Manteau d’Hermine grows to half this size.
Philadelphus are fully hardy and love full sun. They are easy plants to grow and are tolerant of most growing conditions making them good choices for seaside gardens and urban areas suffering from pollution. Most garden centres and nurseries stocking shrubs will sell at least one variety but there are some great mail order nurseries if you would like a bit more choice.
So, Philadelphus, a plant that makes my heart overrule my head. I’d love to hear about plants that you grow for sentimental reasons or that go against design principles.