Monthly Archives: June 2022

Bold Subtlety: The White Garden

At a time of year when loud, colorful fireworks are happening all over the gardens as much as across patriotic night skies, it’s fair to wonder about the attraction of a single garden dedicated to white-flowering plants. After so many showy Peonies and Tall Bearded Iris, and now Roses galore, why focus on a subtle grouping of paler flowers? Here at White Flower Farm, it comes as no surprise that white flowers have an important story to tell. There is no better place to illustrate this than our White Garden.

The White Garden has been a feature at the farm since the 1940s, when nursery founders William Harris and Jane Grant created a 12-foot by 80-foot perennial border in front of a stone terrace and began filling it with nothing but white flowers. Inspired by the British moon garden, they considered the display to be the epitome of horticultural sophistication. It was so prominent in their minds, in fact, that their first idea for a nursery was to showcase only white-flowering perennials and shrubs — an idea that “lasted about a minute,” they later admitted. The simple yet sophisticated White Garden is nonetheless memorialized in the nursery’s name.

Beyond Color

As you approach the White Garden, the general impression of whites and greens invites further acquaintance. If you look more intently, individual plants begin to stand out for characteristics other than color. It is line, shape, form, texture, and value (light and dark) that begin to set them apart. At the front of the border, dense spikes of Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia Archangel™ White) create a well-defined corner. Green stalks of Salvia (S. nemorosa ‘White Profusion’), having dropped most of their snowy flowers, add further linear interest, as do the icicle-like racemes of Speedwell (Veronica ‘White Wands’). Set midway into the border, a stout specimen of Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens ‘Haas’ Halo’) punctuates the pools of perennials at its feet, encouraging visitors to pause and enjoy this first section of the garden.

If you linger, you notice the starlike blossoms of Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana alata) borne on tall, wiry stalks, hovering over the other plants like a small meteor shower.

Moving farther down the border and looking back, you’ll see another handsome vignette that borrows a distant, earthen urn for a focal point. A procession of diverse forms and textures unfolds. Spidery flowers of Cleome (C. hassleriana ‘White Queen’) explode in the foreground like miniature fireworks. Beneath them, fuzzy blooms of Ageratum (A. houstonianum ‘White Bouquet’) and the cascading stems of Salvia (S. verticillata ‘White Rain’) soften the edge of the bed. Bright white blossoms of Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum suberbum Amazing Daisies® Daisy May®) pop out against a backdrop of dark green Hydrangea foliage.

In addition to playing with multiple design elements, the White Garden demonstrates the harmonious way in which annuals, perennials, and shrubs can combine in a single space. The simplified color palette makes it easier to see how different plants can work together.

Dramatic Nuances

Juxtapositions of white-flowering plants lead to another interesting discovery, for there is a great diversity of color within the world of white. The pure white of Cleomes contrasts significantly with the lemon-cream flowers of Mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’) on bold, spear-like stalks. Similarly, the terminal inflorescences of Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), shown in the background of the photo above, have the appearance of brown butter. Petal-packed bombs of Zinnia (Z. elegans ‘Oklahoma White’) glisten like buttermilk, while small flowers of Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) gleam like pearls.

White flowers do something else. They help you see nuances of green like never before. Clean white starbursts of Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris ‘Only the Lonely’) and milky blossoms of Floribunda Rose (Rosa ‘Iceberg’) direct your eyes to the supporting foliage — glowing like the zest of fresh limes, on the one hand, and subdued and darker on the other. While the fascinating white flower heads of Gas Plant (Dictamnus albus) are past, their yellow-green seedpods and glossy forest leaves help other white blooms stand out.

Quiet Fireworks

Toward the end of the border, a large Rose bush (Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’) lends some stability to the sea of stems in front of it. There, visitors may spy a single white blossom aglow with light, like a quiet firework in a sky of dark foliage. Perhaps it can serve as a symbol of the White Garden’s bold subtlety.

The White Garden has one other claim to fame. No other garden on the property shines as brightly on a moonlit night.

Over the Rainbow: The Wide World of Iris

A breadth of colors is likely to explain why certain plants are called Iris, a term deriving from the Greek word for “rainbow.” (The ancient Greek goddess of the rainbow was also given this moniker.) With the profusion of colors found in cultivated varieties of Tall Bearded Iris alone, it is not difficult to explain the association between these flowering plants and the spectacular spectrum that stretches across the sky.

Beyond color variety, however, there is an even larger world in which Iris demonstrate an array of shapes, forms, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Follow along as we explore this diversity, with the hope it may inspire a greater appreciation of a remarkable genus.

Understanding Iris

To set the stage for the genus Iris, which comprises almost 300 species, it helps to step back to view it within the wider context of its botanical family. The Iris family (Iridaceae) includes 64 other genera also known as “Irids” — brothers and sisters, if you will, of our beloved Iris. The family tree contains well-known siblings like Crocus, Freesia, and Gladiolus, plus a plethora of lesser-known relations, from Aristea to Zygotritonia. With such an extensive family, it may be easier to understand why Iris species manifest such a variety of characteristics.

The American Iris Society, the world’s registrar for Iris, upholds some essential classifications to help make sense of this broad genus. One of the simplest groupings depends upon the structure of the plants’ underground parts where nutrients are stored. Some of the most well-known Iris grow from rhizomes — modified stems that grow horizontally in the soil and send out roots and shoots from nodes. Examples of rhizomatous Iris include the flamboyant Tall Bearded Iris (Iris germanica) and flat-flowered Siberian Iris (I. sibirica). Other Iris come from bulbs, just as Tulips and Daffodils do. Some bulbous species are Dwarf Iris (I. reticulata) and Dutch Iris (I. hollandica). A final category includes plants with fleshy roots, such as Juno Iris, a subgenus comprising multiple species.

A more technical classification method, which can make identifying Iris varieties easier at a glance, is based on floral structure — specifically, whether a fuzzy “beard” is present on the flowers’ lower petals, called “falls.” Bearded Iris and Beardless Iris both have their own unique types. A couple of other categories are of special interest to botanists (and will not be highlighted here). Perhaps of more relevance to gardeners are the informal groups organized around Iris characteristics of horticultural value, such as reblooming, unusual foliage, and historical status.

Flight of Floral Forms

Iris flowers are not just extraordinary for their range of colors. They are also structurally stunning — from showy Tall Bearded Iris flowers with their billowing standards (upright petals), lavish falls, and textured beards to the distinctly prostrate, beardless blossoms of Siberian Iris and Japanese Iris (I. ensata). To create a sequence of bloom in the garden, pair the June-flowering Tall Beaded Iris and Siberian Iris with Japanese Iris, which blossom slightly later. The examples below illustrate the possibility of a prolonged period of bloom with a procession of varying shapes and forms.

Iris germanica ‘Champagne Elegance’

The muted shades of bicolored Tall Bearded Iris ‘Champagne Elegance’ invite us to focus a bit more on the graceful cadence and delicate ruffles of the ivory standards and palest orange falls. This prolific bloomer carries 7–10 buds per stem. It is also a favorite example of Reblooming Iris, a type that may, in favorable conditions, send forth a second round of flowers in late summer.

Iris chrysographes black-flowered

Iris chrysographes black-flowered, a kind of Siberian Iris, is stunning for its deep reddish violet blooms that appear as dark as night. It is also called the “Gold-Marked Iris” (literal meaning of chrysographes) for the fine pattern of golden tracery at the top of the falls. With a trio of standards much smaller in ratio to the falls, as well as three prominent “style arms” among the standards, this beardless blossom has quite a contrasting countenance to that of its relation above.

Iris ensata ‘Loyalty’

The luxuriant purple flowers of Japanese Iris ‘Loyalty’ measure almost 8” across. Unlike the former two blooms, this one is noteworthy for the six equally sized petals that cascade in unison from the base of three modest, upright style arms. ‘Loyalty’ adds individual flair with bright yellow striping that emanates from the petal throats, accentuating the detailed, blue-violet veining across the petals themselves.

Beyond Blooms

While the flowers alone point to great diversity within the Iris genus, there are other characteristics that set it apart. Two of them include growth habit and leaf color.

Iris cristata ‘Eco Bluebird’

This dwarf variety of Crested Iris (Iris cristata), ‘Eco Bluebird,’ is praiseworthy for more than just its lilac-blue flowers that bloom in mid-spring and are attractive to hummingbirds. Reaching only 6-8” tall, it makes a perfect ground cover in a wide range of soil conditions.

Iris pallida ‘Variegata Aurea’

Iris pallida ‘Variegata Aurea,’ a variegated variety of Sweet Iris, is a favorite for lavender blooms that happen to possess the unforgettable scent of grapes. But this plant could also be grown simply for its foliage. The golden striped leaves beautifully echo the yellows of companion plants and appear to be aglow when backlit by sunshine.

No matter why you decide to plant Iris in your garden, one thing is certain. There are manifold reasons to add members of this genus to your collection of plants. Indeed, the infinite variation of Iris may be the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.