Mock Orange

The sweetly fragrant mock orange blossoms in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The sweetly fragrant mock orange blossoms (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Although it’s been over thirty years, the balmy perfume of Florida’s orange groves remains clear in my scent-sual memory banks.  There is something about this unforgettable tropical flower that is both alluring, yet mysterious.  Its fragrance is spicy with a hint of jasmine, and when the delicious scent comes to you on a warm breeze you may stop in your tracks, temporarily dazed.  Alas, we’re not in Florida, so what can we do here?  You could enjoy the sweet fruity aroma by growing a tropical tree in your home, or you can do what I do in our less inviting zone 5 climate: grow a mock orange, instead!

Mock orange with a lovage companion in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Mock orange with a lovage companion (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Mock orange, a genus of about 60 species, are native to North America, Central America and Asia.  A few of the most popular mock orange in my New England climate are Philadelphus coronarius (zone 4-9), a taller shrub capable of reaching 10 feet tall and wide (easily be pruned to keep more compact) and Philadelphus x virginalis, (zone 5-8), which produces masses of double white flowers while remaining a moderate 5 foot shrub.  As the “mock” in its name suggests, mock orange is not a true orange; instead named for its similarly citrus scented blossoms. There are some variances in fragrance intensity depending on the cultivar, so you may want to sample them at a local nursery (or in a friend’s garden) before making a final selection.

The gorgeous flower of Philadelphus virginalis in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The gorgeous flower of Philadelphus virginalis (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Usually grown for the fireworks of milky white blooms in early summer, mock orange remains attractive in the border with its upright form and deep green foliage throughout the growing season. Although fragrance is the major selling point for Philadelphus cultivars, most will make great border companions that tolerate many soil conditions, including periods of drought, usually requiring little care. I have never watered (once established) or fertilized either of my mock orange shrubs, however, I trim them annually.

Philadelphus is like fireworks in the border in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Philadelphus is like fireworks in the border (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

On that note, I do recommend pruning to promote both a lusher, healthier plant, and to maintain a pleasing shape. As mock orange matures, they tend to get some radical branches that grow much taller, while the base of the shrub starts to get rather sparse. To encourage a more robust growth, I recommend pruning some (about 1/3) of the oldest branches to the ground each year (right after the blooming period), and to continue this process annually. If you have purchased a home with an elderly, out-of-control plant, all is not lost. As long as the shrub is healthy, you can perform the same routine of pruning 1/3, or try an even more drastic approach and prune the entire shrub to the ground in early spring. You will sacrifice that year’s blooms (mock orange blooms on last year’s growth), but the shrub will be phenomenal the following year!

To fill the fragrance gap between spring blooming lilacs and viburnum, and the later summer Oriental lilies, consider adding a mock orange (or two) to your landscape. Your nose will thank you for it~

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