It's the Plants, Darling

Is it the Real Mockorange or the Mock?

IMG_2445 Mockorange at my neighbor Peggy's

I've been writing a lot about old-fashioned shrubs this spring because the older varieties often have a subtle beauty that more dramatic modern cultivars lack.  And they can be almost impossible to find in nurseries.

Number one on my list of great neglected shrubs is the mockorange, and it is SO old-fashioned that my favorite gardening book from the era when cheap labor was still fresh in the memory and middle-class suburban gardens included stone paths and terraces–1945's America's Garden Book by Louise Bush-Brown and James Bush-Brown–puts philadelphus coronarius on its list of old-fashioned shrubs appropriate for "colonial" gardens.

I used to own an actual colonial houseWhen I moved into it, I surveyed the ungainly, leggy lilac planted much too close to its right side with distaste.  Except that May came and went and it was not a lilac.  In June, it began identifying itself with white buds so round, small, and numerous, that I swear, they looked like stars in the sky.  Then it bloomed–about a million little bell-shaped blooms with a sharp citrus scent that turned its fresh look into something approaching a miracle of freshness.  As it finished up its run, the blooms dropped their petals one by one on the grass until it looked like a snowfall.

Hands down, most beautiful shrub, ever. 

Then I moved.  And though my mockorange had suckered and seeded itself all over the place, did I think to dig up a shoot?  I did not. My only excuse is that I was eight months pregnant at the time, and I had other things on my mind, like, "What's for lunch?"

But such a modest, old-fashioned shrub should be easy to replace, right?

Wrong.  There are a number of philadelphus species and many cultivars and the same nomenclatural madness that gardeners always complain about.  And everybody who offers one claims that their's is the one you want.  For example, I very excitedly ordered three philadelphus lewisii 'Blizzard'  from Fedco Trees a few years ago on their claim that, "This is the classic single-flowered mockorange."  Nope.  Blizzard is extremely happy in my country yard, but I'm not so cheery.  Its flowers are too big and flat and stupid.  It is totally lacking the grace of my mockorange of memory.

Wayside, too, has long been into this chest-thumping thing, claiming that its "hard to find" 'Virginal' strain was the "true" mockorange strain.  Again, MY true mockorange was not this.  My flowers were not double.

One local nursery sells a variety called 'Minnesota Snowflake' that also has small double flowers.  Very pretty, but I did not detect much scent, and scent is essential to the beauty of a mockorange.

Victor_Lemoine Checking out my rather disorganized and excessively Brit-centered shrub reference, The Random House Book of Shrubs, has made me suspect that I might even have had a native species in my yard: They call it philadelphus intectus, but the University of Tennessee, where it is found in nature, calls it philadelphus pubscens var. intectus.

Of course, if Random House is to be believed, the great 19th century French plant breeder Victor Lemoine was fooling around with this particular species in 1909 when he bred 'Virginal', so it's possible that the mockorange I remember was simply another super-tasteful French cultivar, a single. There is even a Lemoine-named species, philadelphus lemoinei, but I'm afraid I'm too simple to unravel all the threads here.

Meanwhile, my neighbor Peggy has a very graceful mockorange in the very graceful yard of her very wonderful Victorian house.  I'm not sure it's the same as the miraculous one that I had, and this promises to keep me up nights for years, but beggars can't be choosers.  Peggy's offered me a shoot. 

Posted by on June 10, 2009 at 5:07 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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18 responses to “Is it the Real Mockorange or the Mock?”

  1. As you note in your essay, “There are a number of philadelphus species and many cultivars and the same nomenclatural madness that gardeners always complain about.” You should note if the graceful Mockorange your neighbor Peggy is offering is one that suckers heavily. The mockorange up here is a vicious suckerer forming dense thickets that spread far beyond its intended space allotment. It occasionally blooms with enough flowers to take note, this year being one of them. Maybe I’ll sniff it today.

  2. Susan Cohan says:

    Hands down, the shrub I most look forward to blooming in my garden. Masses of white flowers and fragrance to boot.

  3. Valeri says:

    I have tried desperately to find a Mock Orange Blossom which has scent but to no avail. They all have lovely blooms but no smell and it is the smell from my childhood which I remember. Good luck in your search! Val

  4. Barbara says:

    Planted a philadelphus lewisii last month. I hope it’s not the one with flowers that are “too big, flat and stupid”. This “wild mock orange” supposed to be a California native.

    I’m eager to see how it compares to the mock orange of your memory. It’ll be a while though. Right now it’s sulking in this interminable June Gloom that we’ve had since May.

  5. PlantingOaks says:

    I have one of these.

    I didn’t realize it was anything special – it’s absolutely humongous, and sort of plopped inconveniently into the middle of the yard, too far from anything else to smell or appreciate it often. I would not say it smells as much as the lilacs, but it is a distinct orange scent – pretty strong (and I am not sensitive to smells). The flowers have four cupped petals. (picture on picasa: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/129TyCdvF87uC2ousaqTow )

    I can’t be sure of the vintage, but the property itself dates to the 1860s.

    I do not *think* that it suckers, but it’s rather an unpruned mess right now, so it might have suckers hiding up under its skirts.

    I’ve no idea how to share the thing, but perfectly willing if it’s something desirable.

  6. Ellen says:

    I, too, am a disappointed Philadelphus owner. Mine is a boring shrub with unscented, short-lived unimpressive flowers that sends out extremely long shoots every year that require pruning to keep it a decent size and shape. Too much work for not enough reward.

    When we first moved here and I was trying to identify all of the landscaping plants, I read the glowing descriptions of the fragrance and blooms, and thought, “Well, that’s definitely not it.” I’ve yet to experience the fragrance that everyone raves about with Mockorange.

  7. Michele Owens says:

    PlantingOaks, that certainly looks like what I had–it’s the cupped flowers that make it so pretty.

  8. Luckily. my Victorian-era neighbors are all too happy to share cuttings with me from their old shrubs when I ask. Got one Mock Orange started right next to my sun room window and enjoying the wafting-in scent right now.

  9. Louis says:

    To those of you talking about how you need to prune this shrub – remember that you should prune the oldest branches to the ground. This isn’t boxwood – if you cut a branch near the top you’ll get new growth shooting crazily up and it’ll be a mess in no time. Remember, you cannot prune shrubs for height.

  10. commonweeder says:

    I had no idea it was so difficult to get a real mockorange. After a couple of nursery types died on me a friend with a really green thumb gave me a shoot from hers. And her mockorange was old! Mine is simply beautiful. I had no trouble keeping this one alive. The fragrance is heavenly.

  11. Connie says:

    Is this it? http://wvfurandroot.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/mock-orange-redux/

    If so, I’ll be happy to tell you where I got it. It’s a prolific bloomer and the fragrance is overwhelming. This is my second year with it and the nursery still has them. I’ve long since lost the tag so I don’t know the Latin name, but it’s a wonderful plant.

  12. Marilee says:

    Commonweeder, where did you get your Mockorange? I’m searching one with fragrance as well as a Calycanthus with fragrance. Caly is also known as Allspice, Carolina Allspice, Sweetshrub, but NONE in the nurseries I have tried have much scent. It’s weedy like a mockorange but flowers are raspberry/reddish and the smell is applespice/pineapple – hard to describe, but wonderful. rosiesmom54@hotmail.com

  13. Michele Owens says:

    Connie, I think you’ve got it. The bell-shaped flowers are the key. Where did you buy such a thing?

  14. Connie says:

    I got it at a nursery called Terra Salis in Milton, WV. I’m pretty sure they still had some a couple weeks ago. I’m not sure, but I think the nursery is a local chain. The staff is wonderful and the site is fabulous.

    The fragrance is indescribable – one blossom sents the small fenced portion of my yard. It’s tops in my personal hit parade.

    Let me know if you need an address and/or a phone number.

  15. Marte says:

    If someone buys this plant, can you please post the Latin name so some more of us can search for it too?

  16. Michele Owens says:

    I called Terra Salis. The lovely woman who answered the phone said that she was sold out of mockoranges, but looked in her books and said they’d ordered ‘Blizzard,’ ‘Innocence’ and ‘Miniature Snowflake’ this year–none of which is what Connie has.

    She said it was possible that Connie bought something ordered a few years ago.

    So we don’t have an answer yet.

  17. Nancy J. Hickman says:

    I think I have a “real” mock orange shrub/tree. It was here when I move here 25 years ago. It is above the roof line now. It needs to be pruned( I think). Don’t like the way it looks – over grown. Had 3 of them in a row – lost 2 of them. Afraid to cut this one, but again, it’s above the roof. Good lookin folige, beautiful blooms, not sure of the fragrance (ashamed to say). Just want to keep my mock orange. It covers the ground like snow, when blooms fall. Can I cut it back? PLEASE HELP !!!!!!!!!!

  18. Cheryl Scott says:

    P. lewisii is the Western-US native, state flower of Idaho, named for Meriweather Lewis, who named it mock orange because of the scent. This is the wild form I’d rather have than any later cultivar — and Fedco’s good but they list it as a native of China, which it is not. I’m glad you pointed me to Fedco trees ‘cuz even though you don’t like it, I’m dying to get one into my yard! :-)

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