Why white?

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
April 2013

Steffie Shields recommends plants to celebrate Easter and more…
White is supremely attractive, the colour of life, of kindness and goodness. I suppose that is why brides traditionally wear white. This coming July my very dear daughter will be tying the knot with her chosen partner, an exciting prospect. You can appreciate why white is on my mind! After the wedding in St Bartholomew’s Church, with which we share a boundary wall, the festivities will launch in our garden and, thanks to my kind neighbours, move to a white marquee in the adjacent grassy Glebe Field.

My imagination, working overtime, races ahead, picturing our informal, relaxed garden (not at all Sissinghurst) at its best, full of frothy, floral rose-scented romance! It will be too late for Spiraea ‘Bridal Wreath’ and orange blossom. Will the perfumed Philadelphus still be flowering? Can I risk introducing Mediterranean myrtle, sacred to Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, and popularised by Queen Victoria? Would I be safer with heavenly-scented white summer jasmine? What to plant and where? Trying not to panic, I question whether the white alliums I planted late autumn will actually last through to mid-July.

Have you noticed how, especially in a garden full of green foliage, white always catches the eye over and above any other colour? So take time for careful consideration when introducing new white-flowering plants, shrubs and trees. Seek out the best placement to avoid a confused and distracting polka-dot effect, too many blobs of white around your garden. Feature shrubs like Magnolia stellata, or ornamental trees need to stand apart. This is precisely why Vita Sackville-West created her famous ‘White Garden’ room enclosed by evergreen yew hedges at Sissinghurst.

Soon after we moved into Welby, to mark our April wedding anniversary, my husband and I found a special arching shrub Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ that, in time, I am hoping might grow into a small tree. Every April I watch its progress budding up, often coinciding with Eastertide. The brilliant, loving cascade of blossom reminds me of my wedding day. I first came across this splendid specimen visiting Fulbeck Hall, when the late Mary Fry, former châtelaine of Fulbeck, encouraged me to join Lincolnshire Gardens Trust. Thanks to Mary for leading me down many other garden paths. This year I hope to visit the Annual Spring Flower Show in Spalding. If possible I intend to buy a newly registered daffodil, ‘Lincolnshire Lady’ named for Lady Sally Bruce-Gardyne’s special birthday and for contributing much to the Lincolnshire Daffodil Society (as well as Lincolnshire Gardens Trust).

Learn from others, and by looking at other gardens, especially from the top of the bus! Learn by experience. I have found spring-flowering pots work best close to the house. Variations of white and lime green complement and help link in the stark white window frames and patio doors, and ease the transition between house and the rest of the garden. (Later in bright summer light I boldly replace the white flowers with eye-catching annuals in vibrant orange-red.) One chance plant combination came about after purchasing a ‘Special Offer’ buy one cornus, get one free. Two large pots, centred with lime-green stems of Cornus stolonifera for height, featured effectively for several weeks surrounded by double white primroses and white-flowering bulbs. The spring snowflake Leucojum aestivum, with lime green tips to match the cornus stems, made an excellent nodding acquaintance with Narcissus ‘Ice Wings’. These small, fifty-centimetre-high daffodils, have sturdy stems bearing up to three pure white flowers. Hoping to repeat this successful layered effect for the July wedding, I might place a few potted flowering trees and shrubs in the church in lightweight grey containers that look like granite. After the service, these will then be safely transferred to the nearby marquee to save on expense and mother-of-the-bride’s flower-arranging energy!

Easter is early this year and, you’ll agree, it can’t come soon enough! Almost mid-March as I write, its snowing gently, sprinkling amongst snowdrops that are still blooming their heads off. Meanwhile the Conclave in Rome is meeting to elect a successor to Pope Benedict, following the first papal resignation in six hundred years. Millions are praying for a good man to take on this most daunting role of exemplary, meaningful world leadership, a man destined to dress the rest of his days in white. Easter is the right time to hail the new successor to St Peter, bringing forgiveness and hope. Here too pastors and priests will be donning white and gold vestments to welcome all-comers to celebrate Easter, the gold signifying precious life. Churches will be filled with striking, white-hooded arum lilies for purity and grace, and yellow daffodils, the colour of sunshine, trumpeting joy and happiness.

Since time immemorial, people have celebrated the arrival of spring; longer, lighter days, new babies in the family, gambolling lambs in the fields and fresh young growth in gardens and countryside. For Christians, Easter has deeper resonance, coming as an annual, pivotal reason to rejoice whereby personal worries and grim tribulations are relieved and overcome by reassuring faith in Christ’s victory over death on the cross. This is also reflected in our gardens, surging up and fully, if tenderly, alive this month. Arum lilies, Zantedeschia aethiopica, set off by architectural, glossy leaves look and do well in full sun in a bog garden or beside water, on the shallow verges of ponds. The luminous white Narcissus poeticus tends to open a wee bit later than most other daffodils, and sits well amongst white-flowering shrubs and trees, such as plum, pear and double-white cherry blossom. Rather than three or four Narcissus dotted in amongst multi-coloured flowerbeds, one bold swathe of ‘old pheasant’s eye’ makes a pleasing partnership with the orange-red stems of Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ picking up the red ruff of the corona. White hyacinth have naturalised in the grass under three silver birch trees, becoming somehow daintier, another elegant association I recommend.

When I was little, I remember the fun of Easter: my sister and I dressing up in new white straw hats and matching white gloves to go to church, our moment to shine. Now, like many traditional mums and grannies, I enjoy filling the house with mixed daffodils from the garden held upright in metal pin-holders hidden by variegated arum leaves and quickly contrive an ‘Easter tree’ by dangling multi-coloured wooden eggs on twigs of white cherry blossom. I hope to hear, at least once, the strains of a favourite hymn, ‘All in the April Evening’ and on Easter Sunday ensure every member of my family wears something new – if only a pair of socks or Sloggys! And then this year, I will concentrate on our garden, and probably plant another Exochorda to commemorate my daughter’s special wedding day. Happy Easter everyone!

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