My garden has entered something of a white phase at the moment. I have never dared to create an actual white garden, but November seems to be the time when lots of white flowers bloom. White can be a tricky colour to use in the garden. In sunny spots, stark white flowers can be dazzlingly glary, like something out of a washing powder ad. White also seems to jar with some colours and distract attention from others by its presence. There are also different 'shades' of white, which can look wrong when they are all herded together in the name of a 'white garden'. In shady places, however, the introduction of a few white flowers can be effective, bringing lightness into the gloom.
I always wanted a verandah swathed in star jasmine (having once seen such a sight in a magazine) and finally I did have one for a number of years. Our shaded back verandah was transformed into a white flowery bower in November as Trachelospermum jasminoides (ht 6m) bursts into a profusion of bloom, scenting the air all around with its sweet fragrance. This evergreen climber is very useful for shaded garden areas. It is not as rampageous as common jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) and is quite slow to establish. Once it takes hold though, you do need to prune it back annually after flowering, as it gets a little bold and sends its tendrils beyond its appointed boundaries, which was why we ended up removing it from the verandah in the end! It can be trained on wires in patterns, used as a groundcover or as a clipped edge for garden borders. I now have it growing on a lattice a shady wall around a bird bath in a different part of the garden.
Beneath my verandah, the shaded Hydrangea border is coming into bloom, with several white specimens. I love white flowers that begin their lives suffused with greenish overtones, as many of the mophead Hydrangea do. I think this greenish effect looks pretty with more pristine white flowers nearby, such as the renga renga lilies (Arthropodium cirratum, ht 60-90 cm), which are now in full flight.
This New Zealand plant is a wonderful addition to a shaded border, even where the soil is quite dry. The broad, arching foliage is attractive year-round, then in November, tall spires open with myriad white stars of bloom, echoing the star jasmine which flowers above them. The cultivar 'Matapouri Bay' (ht 70-100 cm) is said to be a good form and there is a dwarf version called 'Te Puna' (ht 30 cm). A pretty little shade-loving groundcover, Saxifraga stolonifera (ht 20 cm), has flowers a little similar to those of the renga renga lily and at the same time, so I like to grow it nearby. It has beautiful silver-veined round foliage.
Calla or arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica, ht 60-90 cm) are one of those old-fashioned plants which are often spurned, but they can be so useful in a shaded garden bed and bring a bold white form and texture as a contrast to the dainty flowers of the renga renga lily. The calla does self-seed, so it is important to deadhead these as soon as blooming is over. There is a lovely greenish form, called 'Green Goddess' which I like to grow amongst my Hydrangea, and a miniature version that I also grow in the same area (pictured above).
I have another shady garden area with a number of white flowered plants. The lovely double oakleaf Hydrangea 'Snowflake' (ht 2 m) is in bloom there now, with this large, conical panicles of flowers. More Arthropdium grows in this bed, along with an unusual bulb that is in bloom now, called Albuca nelsonii (ht 80 cm), which has upright candelabras of green-striped white flowers that look like giant snowdrops. Nearby is a white-flowered version of Justicia carnea (ht 1.5 m) that blooms well now and has further flushes through summer and autumn every few weeks, as long as it is deadheaded regularly. In this garden area, shade-tolerant silver foliage (including Plectranthus argentatus, with its superb velvet leaves and Strobilanthes gossypina) and soft blue flowers, such as Plectranthus zuluensis accompany the white flowers.
White flowers can be enhanced by growing them with white-variegated foliage, an effect known as 'colour echoes'. In my shady white borders, I use various green and white variegated foliage plants, including Hydrangea, Iris japonica, white honesty (Lunaria annua var. albiflora 'Alba Variegata') and Plectranthus forsteri 'Marginatus' to achieve this. There is something about the pairing of a flower with a leaf of the same colour that I find quite compelling, and it is fun to apply this idea to lots of other blooms and foliage in the garden as well!
Blog first posted 1 November 2009; updated 14 November 2021.
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