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Late Summer Whites
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

September 8, 2002

I haven’t yet made pilgrimage to the famed white garden at Sissinghurst, but friends who did last summer recorded their visit with photographs more notable for the crush of tourists than for excellence in garden design. White gardens remain quite fashionable, and generous use of white in planting schemes is usually rewarding, particularly in the late summer garden.

White plants are splendidly versatile: they can light up a gloomy corner; in repetition they can bring a sense of unity, even of formality, to what otherwise might be a hopeless hodge-podge of hues; they can mediate between and reconcile fiercely clashing colours, and by contrast strengthen soft neighbouring colours. At twilight and by moonlight the whites shine with a thrilling luminescence. Especially in late summer, white foliage and flowers can create an atmosphere of cool and refreshing spaciousness, a soothing interlude between the blazing hues of high summer and those of autumn.

At our place just now, a ‘Huldine’ clematis draped over the rose arbour spills a lovely mantle of slightly cupped white flowers, each with a faint mauve blush and soft green stamens. In the shade of a small crabapple tree, oak-leaved hydrangeas, H. quercifolia, bloom with large panicles of ivory white flowers. Out in full sun, a row of summer phlox, P. paniculata, creates a brilliant shining snowbank of pure white bloom, while in a shadier corner, a red-twigged dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ spreads beautifully white-variegated leaves.

However brilliant these mainstage performers may be this time of year, they shouldn’t blind us to the more subtle charms of plants whose beauty lies in masses of much smaller flowers.The Pearl, Achillea ptarmica, is a sturdy old favourite with an extended summer blooming that can light up any garden. Although it’s a yarrow, the Pearl produces multiple miniature white globes that create an airy effect, rather than the flat-headed brush cut of most yarrows. Notwithstanding its dainty appearance, this perennial is a workhorse, hardy in all zones, tolerant of drought and a spreader in moist ground.

Just now our garden boasts a charming small composition featuring the little pink rose ‘The Fairy’ reclining against fluffy white pillows of the Pearl and of Baby’s Breath, Gypsophilia paniculata. This hardy member of the pink family is beloved by florists for good reason: its many-branched panicles bear thousands of tiny white flowers, creating a silvery mist that seems to wrap itself with airy grace around larger plants and coarser leaves. An excellent filler, hardy to zone three, gypsophilia loves sun, sweet earth and good drainage. Soggy ground and disturbance of its deep taproot are two things it won’t tolerate.

Just behind this composition, a drift of gooseneck lysimachia, L. elethroides, appears to have gathered like a gaggle of inquisitive geese. A native of western Asia, sometimes called Japanese loosestrife, this hardy perennial has sturdy stems with dusty green leaves, the stems culminating in an elegant taper of massed greyish white flowers resembling the neck and head of a goose. A solid performer in the mixed border or wild garden, it enjoys moist and fertile ground and will droop disheartedly if it gets too dry. In damp conditions its foliage remains strong after flowering.

Another Asian beauty of slender elegance is Artemesia lactiflora, known less elegantly as white mugwort. It is one of the few garden artemesias with attractive flowers and with green rather than grey foliage. In August and September it produces flowering stalks about two metres tall that bear creamy plumes of tiny ivory-tinged flowers. Colourist Penelope Hobhouse writes that these are not spectacular plants but pleasing neighbours. She recommends placing them alongside gleaming yellows which they can subtly connect to green leaves in a way that pure white flowers couldn’t, or including the artemesias in a blue and grey colour scheme where they can enhance pure bright blues.

This autumn I want to relocate next to the artemesia a thalictrum of matching height whose airy clusters of powdery blue flowers I think will go wonderfully with the ivory artemesia flowers, and those of its current neighbour, the black snakeroot, Cimicifuga racemosa. This stately late summer bloomer is native to woodlands from New England to Tennesee, and is sometimes called cohash bugbane. It prefers rich, moist acidic soil and partial shade, though ours is thriving in full sun. Its slender flowering stems reach two metres or more, producing multiple slim towers composed of many tiny white flowers, like miniature steeples massed in a mountain village.

Nearby a native of the American southwest, white gaura, G. lindheimeri, dangles pinkish white flowers closely set along thin stems about a metre tall. The flowers are each about three centimetres wide with four petals. Happiest in full sun, hardy to zone five, tolerant of drought and neglect, this gorgeous and long-blooming wildflower has become something of a darling of late. Never mind. Its charms, like those of the other modest late summer beauties, perhaps even of Sissinghurt’s white garden too, will survive the clammy embrace of prevailing fashion and provide cooling sweet delights for years to come.

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