A Good Word (or two) for Spiraea

Rereading Vita Sackville-West ( see below) reminds me to say a good word for spiraea, specifically the early bloomers that just had a sort of bloom-time preview because they were covered with snow. The ones in our yard are Spirea arguta, the old fashioned bridal wreath, and S. vanhouttei, which runs it a close second in the grandmother’s garden department. Soon enough they’ll be flowering in earnest, along with thousands of others just like them, in untidy great white arching hedges all over the Northeastern spring.

Like lilacs and forsythia, they lack a bit in year-round charm. But in their season, they’re glorious, they’re very easy to grow, and there are so many cultivars you’re bound to find one that will work at your place. ( One cultivar, that is. I can’t imagine one white spiraea looking like much except lonely.)

To get a better sense of what’s out there than any local nursery can provide, a sense more sensible than Google’s omnium-gatherum, go to  Plantinfo online,
a service of the University of Minnesota. It provides access to:

” current sources in over 700 North American nurseries for over 88,000 plants, an estimated 250,000 – 300,000 citations to current plant science literature, listings for more than 2100 North American seed and nursery firms, and an evaluative review of 75 CD-ROMs and web sites of plant images.”

What you do not have is the human voice , which leads us back to Ms. Sackville-West, whose real name was Victoria Mary. She was a novelist and poet, a member of the British aristocracy, the lover and friend of Virginia Wolf and a whole lot else that we won’t go into now because I want to get right to her garden writing, and point you toward her white garden, at Sissinghurst, the most famous white garden in the West and inspiration for countless others.

Few of those others approach it in beauty, partly because they are not located on the grounds of Kentish castles and partly because – all too often – they’re just collections of white flowered items, rather than carefully designed gardens in which all flowers are white.

More on garden design to come, but for now, a few words from Vita Sackville-West. They come from A Joy of Gardening, a collection drawn from two of her books ( In Your Garden Again and More for Your Garden) published by Harper and Row in 1958 and now out of print. But that doesn’t mean much. Those books – and the others based on Sackville-West’s garden columns – have been and continue to be more or less continuously recycled, as a quick check at Amazon or your favorite used book store will reveal. Whatever form you find them in, these short pieces are inspiring and entertaining in equal measure and who can say fairer than that?

” One of the prettiest and easiest of spring flowering shrubs is surely spiraea arguta, more descriptively known as bridal wreath or foam of May. In a warm season it may well start foaming in April ; and foam it does, for every one of its black twiggy growths is smothered tight with innumerable tiny white flowers. In fact you cannot see the plant for the flowers…
Obviously the pure candor of its whiteness would look best against the dark background of a yew hedge, or any dark shrubs if yew is not available. There comes a moment at twilight when white plants gleam with a peculiar pallor or ghostliness. I dare to say of white, that neutral tint usually regarded as an absence of color, that it is every bit as receptive to changing light as the blues and reds and purples. It may perhaps demand a patiently observing eye, attuned to a subtlety less crude than the strong range of reds and purples that we get in, say, the herbaceous phloxes which miraculously alter their hue as the evening light sinks across them. I love color, and rejoice in it, but white is lovely to me forever…”

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