Shades of white in the world of flower gardens

“The arums make the white of Persicaria polymorpha a very definite cream and highlight the problem I had with Sissinghurst of putting too many whites together in one space. White flowers always have something else in them, be it blue, pink, mauve or even brown, and these off-whites soon look grubby when they are shown up by the purity of something like Zantedeschia aethiopica. A cream rose such as Rosa ‘Nevada’ needs to be with the right partners, and, since it fades to pink, it is a shame for this ageing process to feel muddied by wrongly placed companions.”

Natural Selection, A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson (2017)

I have been drafting a piece about contemporary white gardens for a publication, so my mind has been on white blooms. Yesterday, in the post-election hiatus and the gloom of a wet, grey day, I headed round the garden with my vintage flower basket to pick a selection of white and largely white flowers.

Ringing in my ears were Dan Pearson’s words above, even though I had read them so really they should have been flashing in front of my eyes – visible rather than audible, so to speak. I had not really got my head around the different shades of white before. Neither, I am sure, had the many women whom we used to describe as being of the Remuera genre back in the 1990s, but who would be known as “ladies who lunch” these days. These were the ones who were hellbent on putting in a white garden, à la Sissinghurst. They were numerous and, in our peak retail days, we met a fair number of them. I recall some for whom white flushed pink was out of the question. Candidates for their white garden had to be pure in hue. White and nothing else. I wish I had the Pearson quote back then. There are many, many plants that open from a pink bud to a white bloom.

Never did I hear any of these women getting their heads around the different shades of white. Nor indeed the role of cream and where creamy white becomes more cream than white. Let alone where cream crosses over to palest yellow. It is spring here, so we have a number of rhododendrons in flower. Of the maybe ten different white rhododendrons I picked, only one was what I would call pure white.

Is Narcissus ‘Thalia’ (on the left) acceptable in a white garden, though it is cream, not white? If ‘Thalia’ is acceptable, how about the narcissus with the pale lemon corona and white petals? And if that lemon corona is still okay, does this go across to ‘Beryl’ and other poeticus hybrids with white petals and small coronas which are somewhat stronger coloured and into the yellows and oranges? Where is the cut-off point? I tell you, this white garden business is fraught with problems and judgement calls.

Are green flowers permissible? If so, why not the white Moraea villosa with blue peacock eye markings or Lachenalia contaminata or Onixotis triquetra which are white with maroon markings? If the latter two are not acceptable, does that rule out the white rhododendron with maroon spotting. Is it not sufficiently pure? Is it okay for a white rhododendron to open from a soft pink bud? No? How about a soft lemon bud or one with a green cast?

I laid all the whites out to peruse and Mark walked into the room. All he wanted to do was to add yellow to lift the scene. I have never wanted a colour themed, pure white garden. It is just not our style and it is hard to stop it being a little flat, a little lacking in energy or pzazz. But if you want one, maybe start considering the importance of different shades and textures of white.

White is not always whiter than white and not all whites are the same. Detail matters and never more so than when you are taking on somebody else’s idea in your garden. Without that attention to detail, you will only ever have an inferior interpretation of the original but without the originality.

Postscript: Should I mention to overseas readers that the white arum lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, can be found listed on every weed reference site in New Zealand, though I am not sure how widely it has been banned outright at this point? It is generally seen as a sign of poor land management to be growing it. Pure white it may be, valued it is not. It joins the giant gunneras and even the erigeron daisy as a botanical crime here.  

6 thoughts on “Shades of white in the world of flower gardens

  1. Dale Lethbridge

    Very thought provoking article, Abby. Such perception will open a whole new way of looking at my whites . I love all those variations and realise that they bring the enchanting delights to a morning walk . All bright cold green white of say Primula obconica would not charm me one whit. It is hard to use well.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes! I have more thoughts on white gardens. I just need to break some of these things into bite-sized pieces. And Dan Pearson was interesting in how he used white in a very hot climate in the south of Italy. Not exclusively white and not too much white but some strategically placed large plants of white to lead one through the garden – maybe 10 or 15 metre spacing? And how he used white to lead through a shaded area. I have seen some recent developments that take white gardens to a whole new level above that of the groundbreaking original at Sissinghurst. The trouble is that the amateur white garden aficionados have never actually got past the Sissinghurst model which, to my eyes, looks very dated now.

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