Pearls of Easter wisdom?
Steffie Shields recommends a popular shrub, Exochorda ‘The Bride’.
Looking for something new to refresh your garden this Easter, when you set off to visit your local garden centre or nursery? You could do well to celebrate by investing in the so-called ‘Pearl Bush’ or ‘Pearl Tree’, Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’. The emerging buds on delicate sprays look just like pale green pearls! This living jewellery gradually morphs into generous blossoms opening to reflect the sunshine.
If you should happen to own or manage a wedding venue, perhaps you could create a celebratory spring setting. Imagine these bushy shrubs planted along a bank, covered in a white haze of pristine flowers, or a couple of small pendulous trees in a pair of large tubs, providing a perfectly pretty backdrop for romantic wedding photographs.
Such appropriate specimens, named for their habit of trailing like a bridal bouquet, are increasingly popular. Now is the time for purchase, as they are mostly only available from nurseries and plant centres when looking their finest in April and May. The small genus, belonging to the rose family, Rosacea, Exochorda is native to China and Turkestan in Central Asia. The good news is that it will adapt to any type of well-drained soil and tolerate a little light shade, but flourishes best in an open, sunny spot. Keep them moist for their first summer.
My first ever encounter with an Exochorda tree came while exploring the historical gardens of Fulbeck Hall on first arriving in Lincolnshire in the mid-1990s. I had never seen such remarkable five-petalled blossoms, over an inch across, even larger than most flowering cherry trees. I learned from the late Mary Fry, who had an engaging passion for gardens, that her well-travelled parents, Captain Henry and Mrs Dorothy Fane, had originally planted it immediately after WWII – perhaps a celebration of peace. I wonder if this veteran survives close to the hall, strategically placed beside the turning circle of the drive, to welcome visitors to the Edwardian terrace garden beyond.
When we retired to Welby, ‘Bride’ was one of the first trees Mike and I planted together. Fast forward 20 years, I often remember Mary as our Exochorda has become a feature miniature tree with an elegant, weeping habit. Its blossom never fails to make an appearance in time to add joy to our wedding anniversary. I had not realised that its tumbling white cascade would shower over and combine so well with existing red parrot tulips, forget-me-nots and true blue perennial cornflowers, Centaurea montana, long since planted in that corner by previous owners. Quite by chance, and much to my amusement, we had contrived a flag-waving red, white and blue spring statement!
Where fragile fruit-tree blossom is short-lived, letting loose a shower of confetti on the wind, these copious blooms are reassuringly frost-hardy, should night-time temperatures dip below freezing.
Exochorda ‘The Bride’ has earned a prestigious Award of Garden Merit, for being easy care, for flowering for at least six weeks through to early summer, and therefore being beneficial to wildlife. Intriguing dark-eyed stigmas and pale greenish yellow stamens attract bees and other nectar-loving pollinators. Only a slight, soft-touch pruning is required immediately after flowering to keep it in good shape and to ensure another spectacle next spring. Once its flowers have faded, a multitude of pale green, star-shaped seed pods remain as texture against its delicate foliage, which turns to shades of yellow and orange come autumn.
There is a definite reason why Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), famous author and garden writer, in her wisdom, came to establish a special white area in her large garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, now open to the public under National Trust care. She only planted a careful selection of white flowers and green, grey and silver foliage plants, with the help of her husband Harold, who dug in and trained an evergreen background yew hedging and box structure to enclose and set off of the planting.
In 1950 Vita described this project, separate from all her other garden ‘rooms’, to readers of her weekly column for The Observer: ‘…I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.’ Envisage the ethereal scene at dusk or in moonlight! Two years later, she confessed: ‘It is something more than interesting. It is great fun and endlessly amusing as an experiment, capable of perennial improvement, as you take away things that don’t fit in, or that don’t satisfy you, and replace them by something you like better.’ Her interesting planting list, now found on the internet, includes white peonies, tall Lilium regale, spires of white foxgloves and delphiniums, with cistus, hydrangea shrubs and almond trees to add volume and height. I cannot fathom why she never chose at least one Exochorda.
The lack of colour pleased Vita, as she played with contrasts of form and texture.
White is not a problem when planted ‘en masse’ – carpets of snowdrops, or even great drifts of white narcissus or winter windflowers looking splendid under weeping willow. Somehow, too many spots or flashes of white appearing randomly around borders can look disjointed or bitty, and will spoil the harmony of the overall design – just as a white cloudy sky will ruin a garden photograph by distracting the eye from the foreground floral scene.
Talking of photographs, our daughter was married almost a decade ago in the village church next door, with a summer reception in our garden. The memorable happy day was over in a flash, so we decided to plant another Exochorda on the other side of the house. After careful thought, we placed it near to three silver birch trees, underplanted with white snowdrops and fresh white Hyacinth ‘L’Innocence’ and lime-green Euphorbia robbiae. This Exochorda successfully bonds the silver birch to the perennial borders, together with a white rose, ‘Rosa alba’ and a later-flowering hebe, making a ‘three-way cuddle’ focal point, a place to pause and enjoy.
Washing up, or pottering and planting in the garden, I am often rewarded with flashbacks of our gorgeous Gabrielle on her wedding day, as elegant bridal sprays or racemes gradually open the length of the arching branches. Just as any bride should be the centre of attraction on her special day, opulent cloudbursts of blossom successfully transform the Exochorda into the star of the spring show.
This month, Christian communities everywhere will soon celebrate the joy of Easter with white vestments and fragrant white flowers, and light the significant white Paschal Candle. White represents purity and innocence, the ultimate colour to symbolise the Resurrection overcoming the darkness of evil: Christ the light of the world. I look forward to cutting several sprays of the ‘Bride’ to add to our Easter decorations, with all its hopes and memories.