White nights

It’s 8.30pm. I am sitting at the table looking out onto my garden. The sun has set and dusk is blurring the outlines of the plants. The deeper shades of green are the first to blend into the gloom, along with the maroon leaves of the Heuchera “Palace Purple’. The greenish yellow foliage of the Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’ maintains its brightening effect for a little longer before receding into its corner. But two plants gleam through the gathering darkness due to their white flowers.

in the foreground is Hesperis matronalis var. albiflora. Held about a metre above the ground in plump racemes, the four petalled flowers resemble those of the white form of Honesty (Lunaria). I step outside to snip a couple of inflorescences to bring into the house and breathe in an intoxicating perfume resembling stocks, hence its common name Sweet Rocket. My RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants reminds me this is a biennial or short-lived perennial and indeed there have been several years where this understated beauty has been absent from the garden when I have omitted to replace it.

Hesperis matronalis var. albiflora

Towards the top of one of the supporting posts of the wooden archway which frames the seating area at the rear of the garden, a dozen or so white rose blooms resist the onset of night. I planted the aptly named ‘White Star’ climbing rose two years ago and it is vigorous and healthy. In March I pruned the rose and trained its stems in a spiral, attaching them to strainer wire which I installed on the four faces of the wooden post. I am delighted at the outcome: blooms evenly distributed from base to top, the glossy dark green leaves highlighting the large, waxy and very fragrant flowers.

Half a kilometre away in Kew Gardens I imagine other pockets of white flowers glimmering in the darkness. The collections of Philadelphus and Deutzia no doubt look ghostly at this time of day. As might the starry white bracts of Cornus kousa and the drooping cotton handkerchief bracts of Davidia involucrata. But for sheer scale and profusion of white flowers, a large tree which stands near the entrance to the North Wing of the Temperate House must make an impressive nocturnal spectacle. The branches of the Chinese Fringe Tree, Chionanthus retusus, droop almost to ground level, weighed down with their shredded white flowers, creating a cool cavernous space which invites games of hide and seek.

Whilst on the subject of Kew Gardens, last Monday, during my weekly three hour stint in the plant shop, a visitor from Seattle showed me an image on her phone of very tall blue spiked plant and asked me to identify it. I recognised the plant as Echium pininana, giant viper’s bugloss, and my colleague confirmed the the shop stocked the seeds in the Thompson & Morgan World Garden range.

Coincidentally I had, like the Seattle visitor, seen a mass planting of these huge biennials in St James’s Park a few days before, creating an almost prehistoric effect. Nearby, in a shadier location, I was very taken with a glorious display of foxgloves, honesty, heuchera and a fern, Cyrtomium falcatum. The only reason I was able to identify the fern, was that I bought one at a plant fair at the Garden Museum in Lambeth at the beginning of the month. It has broader individual leaves than most ferns and is now growing happily in a dimly lit spot beside the back door. Unlike the garden’s white flowered plants, however, it fades into the darkness when night falls.


3 thoughts on “White nights

  1. I love the effect of white flowers in the evening and you’ve given me some good ideas here – thank you! (Hesperis would be especially good near our back door – the scent would be a bonus!) And our neighbours’ philadelphus is magnificent this year and spreading over the fence, just at the back of our house. 🙂

  2. Ah, white; my favorite color. Did you see my naughty article ‘White Supremacy’? It is not as offensive as it sounds of course.

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