I am the first to admit that my garden is not meticulously planned. The broad outlines and color themes are established, but I do not usually draw up complicated planting diagrams. This is partly due to laziness, and partly due to the fact that my garden is an evolving entity. I know myself and therefore like to allow room for random plant purchases, love affairs (however short) with specific cultivars, and plant sales that are too good to pass up. Needless to say, it takes lots of white flowers to help tie things together.
Horticultural fashion mavens and writers of catalog prose have decreed this “The Year of the Daisy”. Certainly there are lots of white flowers with daisy-like blossoms. Shasta daisies and white cosmos come to mind immediately, and I always use them both. I have to–I have established clumps of Shastas that multiply like rabbits.
But this year I find myself drawn to a slightly different flower form. The pointed petals of the daisies and their relatives seem less appealing than the looser, more rounded petals of poppies and similarly configured blossoms. White single flowers of this type are lush without being ostentatious and simple without being boring. They float on the spring and summer breezes like white handkerchiefs, and mix well in bouquets. As my catalog orders go out and my credit card balances go up, I am laying in a supply of various poppy-like cultivars for three seasons of interest.
In the first season that I tended my former garden I installed a couple of specimens of wood anemone (Anemone sylvestris). Eight years later, I had at least one hundred plants. Wood anemones are white, and rise on slender stems, flourishing to the points of invasiveness, even in partial shade. They bloom in May and often repeat in the fall. In my experience, they don’t last long after they have been cut, but if you don’t mind their ephemeral nature, they make lovely nosegays.
If you want to take a break from big blowsy roses and peonies, there are several white, single-flowered varieties within each genus. ‘Krinkled White’ is a huge showy peony, with crepe-like petals and a large boss of golden stamens in the center. A bouquet of ‘Krinkled White’ in a clear glass vase has real dramatic impact, whether your décor is English chintz or starkly modern.
There are certain times and places where nothing works as well as rugosa roses At the shore, the pink single ones grow prolifically by the dunes. White rugosas, such as Rosa rugosa alba, tolerate absolutely terrible soil as long as they have ample sunshine. The rugosas’ stems are unbearably thorny, but the blossoms’ spicy scent is worth the hazard. All rugosas produce large orange hips in the fall. It’s a double blessing to have a plant that provides both cool respites on hot summer days and warm accents when the weather turns cool.
Another intensely fragrant white rose with a “nearly single” petal array is Rosa alba semi-plena. This alba rose also has impressive golden stamens. In Eastern Europe the petals are used in perfume making.
If there is a dry sunny spot somewhere on your property, or you are looking for something to grow in a large pot in full sun, try potentilla. These shrubby plants most often appear garbed in yellow flowers, but there is a white form, Potentilla alba ‘Snow White’. These are smallish plants, only 6-inches tall and 12-inches wide that sport sharply dissected gray-green foliage. Potentilla doesn’t really care for high humidity, but if it is happy it will flower repeatedly throughout the summer. If you have a rock garden, potentilla is a wonderful plant to include in your plans.
Summer would not be summer without the various members of the mallow family and their look-alike cousins of the hibiscus clan. My favorite is Malva moschata ‘Alba’, which has white hollyhock-like flowers atop 24-36-inch stems. They are not as statuesque as true hollyhocks, but fill the middle of a mixed border admirably. They also have the hollyhock’s promiscuous tendency to self-seed. This is not a problem in my garden, but you can remedy the situation by removing the seed heads before they ripen.
Summer is also the time for poppies. In the last few years, Eschscholzia californica ‘White Linen’, a new creamy white California poppy cultivar, has appeared in the catalogs. These annuals have delicate flowers, and the typical ferny grayish foliage of many poppies and poppy relatives. ‘White Linen’ plants appear rather spindly and frail, but sprinkled among their orange flowered kin, they make a nice counterpoint.
Fall brings other members of the anemone family to provide a cool antedote to all those dark reds, golds and bronzes. Japanese anemones such as ‘Honorine Joubert’ and Anemone x hybrida ‘Alba’ stand out amidst the asters and mums.
Most of us can never aspire to be like Vita Sackville-West, the English aristocrat celebrated for her horticultural writing, idiosyncratic lifestyle and all-white garden. But all of us can walk briefly in her sensible garden shoes by cultivating a few single white blossoms to add notes of brightness to our beds.