Simple, sophisticated and calming: white flowers and white variegated foliage

By Andy McIndoe

All of us have our favourite colours, and our preference is reflected in our gardens. However, whatever your preference, gardens planted with white flowers, in association with silver, green, or white and green variegated leaves have that certain something. Green and white is always a favourite at Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps because it is such a relief amidst the riot of colour all around. I nearly always have a green and white planting scheme in my Chelsea gardens, and whatever else I do that one is always the show stealer!

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This year is the 100th year of Chelsea Flower Show (the show stared in1913). I’ll definitely be using a white and green scheme this year because white gardens have such an important place in garden history. The white gardens created by Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst and Lawrence Johnson at Hidcote are iconic garden vignettes: cool rooms that contrast with surroundings filled with colour.

The white Garden, Sissinghurst

The impact of white is very light dependent. In full sun white flowers glare; they are impossible to photograph, appearing as white blobs in an image. I’ve been disappointed so many times after garden visits to find that my pictures that I took so carefully are bleached and unusable because of the glaring whites. However in the low light of evening or early morning, or in shade, white comes into its own, reflecting low rays and shining against a darker background.

As I lover of white what would I choose to include in a white and green planting scheme? White and green is a vast planting palette, so expect other green and white posts in the future, but I’m going to start with shrubs because they are the foundation of any lasting scheme.

White gardens often include roses, and undoubtedly the most popular is Rosa ‘Iceberg’, with its apple green foliage and pure white semi-double flowers in loose clusters. Where taller roses can be used the lovely Rosa x alba ‘Alba Semiplena’ is a must with its sweetly scented, semi-double blooms of pure white tissue paper petals surrounding golden stamens. It only flowers only in midsummer but its foliage is blue-green and in a good year remains a feature throughout the season. Amongst the David Austin roses I like the white form of the ‘Mayflower’, ‘Susan Williams Ellis’. This is a healthy, bushy little rose with fragrant many-petalled blooms. I’ve just planted a bed of it with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’, Allium nigrum, Allium atropurpureum and black and white tulips; I’ll report on the results next year.

Perhaps the most useful white flowering shrub is the ever popular Choisya ternata. An evergreen with glossy emerald leaves, it grows on virtually any soil in sun or shade, and produces clusters of pretty fragrant flowers in spring and again in autumn: two seasons of floral interest and the bonus of good foliage. Plant it with the white variegated Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ and you have a basic green and white combination to build onto with white flowering highlights.

Choisya ternata 2

Already I’m hinting that white and green schemes need leaves: white variegations in the foliage will hold a planting combination together when those blooms take a break. Green and white variegated leaves make superb planting partners for white flowered deciduous flowering shrubs. Early in the season I do love white flowered currants, especially Ribes sanguineum ‘White Icicle’ is a reliable performer on any soil. Copper-brown stems carry large hanging clusters of white flowers shaded with spring green. Magnolia stellata ‘Waterlily’ opens its starry pure white blooms from silky grey buds at about the same time. This is the best magnolia for smaller gardens and the delicate blooms prove to be more weather resistant than many of the more ostentatious varieties.

Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' 2

Later in the season Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is one of my personal favourites with its soft apple green leaves and creamy flowerheads that mature to full white. Growing to 80cm or so it is excellent in shade. Some dislike its rather lax habit as the stems arch under the weight of the flowers. Consider this when you plant it and position it further back in the border. The various varieties of Hydrangea paniculata flower even later in the season and are at their best well into autumn. They were particularly spectacular at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Wisley this autumn. I visited a couple of weeks ago and the blooms were still quite beautiful having turned to winter parchment.

Cistus 'Elma'

For those living in warmer drier areas the summer flowering cistus, sun roses, are essential in any white garden. The lovely Cistus ‘Elma’ is not the hardiest but is worth seeking out for a sunny sheltered border. The foliage is particularly deep green and the blooms exceptionally large, shining and bright-eyed. It makes a wonderful planting partner for the very silver spiky foliage of Helichrysum ‘Korma’ or the softer silver mantle of Santolina chamaecyparissus.

Whatever new comes on the scene at Chelsea Flower Show the flowering dogwoods are perennial favourites. Cornus kousa var chinensis is glorious; sweeping branches are graced with stunning creamy-white bracts in late May and June. Cornus ‘Porlock’, a hybrid dogwood, can be grown as a large shrub or small tree. In mild areas it is semi-evergreen with a broad, spreading habit and large creamy white blooms that stand a few centimetres above the branches. In a sunny situation the bracts blush pink as they mature. ‘Porlock’ has the bonus of hanging red fruits in autumn.

Viburnum plicatum mariesii

The lovely Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ is another Chelsea showstopper. Often referred to as the wedding cake shrub, because of its horizontal tiered branches iced with lacecap flowerheads in early summer, it needs space to spread and looks more impressive as it matures. For smaller gardens look out for Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’. It may not have the same dramatic effect, but it repeat flowers throughout the season.

Magnolia stellata When it comes to perennials there are so many white- flowered varieties to choose from, starting with the early white lungworts such as Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’ to the late flowering asters and autumn anemones such as the ever popular Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’. White perennials that create a dreamy naturalistic effect include white valerian, Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’ and the white willow-herb Chaemerion angustifolium ‘Album’. Both are good on poor soils but they do tend to wander. Because of their somewhat vagrant habit they are useful to drift through a large bed or border amongst larger blooms such as peonies.

A few of my Favourite white flowers for fragrance: Philadelphus ‘Virginal’, Lilium regale, Paeonia ‘Duchesse de Nemours’, Jasminum officinale ‘Affine’

A few of my favourite plants with white variegated foliage: Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Patterson’, Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’, Cornus mas ‘Variegata’, Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’ (Yes! it’s variegated ground elder!)

Tell me about your favourite white flowers or foliage for a green and white scheme: share your palest secrets!

Andy McIndoe

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