Some our most beautiful native species are the white-blossomed trees, shrubs and perennials of Spring. In many years, including this year, Spring is slow succession of flowering whites – the Blackthorns followed by Whitebeams and Hawthorns, the Sweet cecily by the Cow-parsley, the Wood anenomes by the Sweet woodruff. (Last year, 2013, Spring was cold and wet until mid-May, then it all happened at once, the roadsides, fields, gardens and parks becoming a riot of white froth and flower).
The true glory of these spring-flowering natives is in the open countryside, but they can also make a stunning contribution to the garden, town or country, wild or formal. Imagine the beautiful, delicate Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata) planted at the shady base of a formal low box hedge, the stately Sweet cecily (Myrrhis odorata) making an early contribution to a potager, or the Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) as the focal point of a lawn, perhaps bridging the more formal part of the garden with a more naturalistic woodland or meadow area. And even in the smallest garden a clump of Sweet cecily will give value for many months, the finely divided soft foliage being beautiful and the aromatic black seedheads architectural, whilst the Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), can be pruned to keep it as a medium-shrub providing spring flower and autumn berries for the small garden.
So, here are five of my favourite ‘Wild Whites’, all of which deserve a place in our gardens. Starting with the smallest and working upwards:
Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)
A tiny, delicate wonder of a plant with starry white flowers, and slightly shiny whorls of rich green leaves, the overall impression being of a gently exploding carpet of green and white firework. It prefers shade, and well drained but moist ground, and form excellent ground cover where it is happy. Flowers above the leaves begin to appear March, flowers April through May.
Star of bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)
This native bulb has an array of charming (and not so charming) folk names – Betty-go-to-bed-at noon, Shamefaced maiden, Dog’s onions – the first two of which refer to the flowers’ habit of closing at midday on cloudy or overcast days. But for me the beauty of this bulb is as much in the clear grass green markings on the the underside of the petals as in the shiny, almost pearlescent side that face thelight. It likes the moist, and naturalises well in grass.
I grow mine in a deep wooden tub, by the side of my pond, with a cultivar of the native Sweet woodrush, (Luzula nivea), where, this year, it looks stunning from April through early June.
Sweet cecily (Myrrhus odorata)
Such a lovely name! Elspeth Briscoe, a founder of My Garden School called her daughter Cecily, and what a good choice it is. It is sweet and lovely plant. The foliage is fresh like new ferns unfurled, but soft to the touch, the flowers a haze of creamy white, and even the seed-heads have beauty as they age through the summer. I grow mine close to the kitchen, and in spring snip its leaves to cook with Rhubarb, the anis sweetness of the leaf replacing half the sugar I would usually use.
This is a tall perennial, up to 1.2m in good conditions. The wonderfully fresh foliage begins as the ground and the air warm in early Spring, and the flowers come before the Cow-parsley, in my garden at least! Use it in the border, the herb garden, or the potager. Or as a fringe to a meadow or grass area – where it is happy it will naturalise and give great value.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
No point in preaching to the converted about this wonderful native tree/shrub: it will give you trees and hedges, blossom and berries, and nurture the birds, invertebrates and insects of your garden. Not showy in the individual flower or berry, there is nevertheless something quintessentially natural about the hawthorn en masse: pushing forward its blossom into the welcoming arms of late spring, showing its crimson berries against the blue skies of autumn. Not a choice for the courtyard garden – but in larger urban settings a hedge of hawthorn (or ‘Mixed natives’) or shrub given room to grow will bring the country to your urban corner.
Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)
The Guelder rose or Wayfaring tree has two seasons of real beauty. The first is in late Spring and early Summer, when it is covered with fragrant, white, lace-cap type flower heads, each composed of an inner ring of creamy-white, tubular, fertile flowers surrounded by larger, porcelain-white sterile florets. The second is in Autumn, with vibrant reds and oranges, a magnet for the eye and the birds.
For smaller gardens there is an excellent berry-bearing cultivar Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ . There is also the very attractive V. opulus ‘Roseum’, Snowball plant, but avoid this if you are creating a wildlife area, as it is completely sterile and has no nectar or fruit.