I've been writing a lot about old-fashioned shrubs this spring because the older varieties often have a subtle beauty that more dramatic modern cultivars lack. And they can be almost impossible to find in nurseries.
Number one on my list of great neglected shrubs is the mockorange, and it is SO old-fashioned that my favorite gardening book from the era when cheap labor was still fresh in the memory and middle-class suburban gardens included stone paths and terraces–1945's America's Garden Book by Louise Bush-Brown and James Bush-Brown–puts philadelphus coronarius on its list of old-fashioned shrubs appropriate for "colonial" gardens.
I used to own an actual colonial house. When I moved into it, I surveyed the ungainly, leggy lilac planted much too close to its right side with distaste. Except that May came and went and it was not a lilac. In June, it began identifying itself with white buds so round, small, and numerous, that I swear, they looked like stars in the sky. Then it bloomed–about a million little bell-shaped blooms with a sharp citrus scent that turned its fresh look into something approaching a miracle of freshness. As it finished up its run, the blooms dropped their petals one by one on the grass until it looked like a snowfall.
Hands down, most beautiful shrub, ever.
Then I moved. And though my mockorange had suckered and seeded itself all over the place, did I think to dig up a shoot? I did not. My only excuse is that I was eight months pregnant at the time, and I had other things on my mind, like, "What's for lunch?"
But such a modest, old-fashioned shrub should be easy to replace, right?
Wrong. There are a number of philadelphus species and many cultivars and the same nomenclatural madness that gardeners always complain about. And everybody who offers one claims that their's is the one you want. For example, I very excitedly ordered three philadelphus lewisii 'Blizzard' from Fedco Trees a few years ago on their claim that, "This is the classic single-flowered mockorange." Nope. Blizzard is extremely happy in my country yard, but I'm not so cheery. Its flowers are too big and flat and stupid. It is totally lacking the grace of my mockorange of memory.
Wayside, too, has long been into this chest-thumping thing, claiming that its "hard to find" 'Virginal' strain was the "true" mockorange strain. Again, MY true mockorange was not this. My flowers were not double.
One local nursery sells a variety called 'Minnesota Snowflake' that also has small double flowers. Very pretty, but I did not detect much scent, and scent is essential to the beauty of a mockorange.
Checking out my rather disorganized and excessively Brit-centered shrub reference, The Random House Book of Shrubs, has made me suspect that I might even have had a native species in my yard: They call it philadelphus intectus, but the University of Tennessee, where it is found in nature, calls it philadelphus pubscens var. intectus.
Of course, if Random House is to be believed, the great 19th century French plant breeder Victor Lemoine was fooling around with this particular species in 1909 when he bred 'Virginal', so it's possible that the mockorange I remember was simply another super-tasteful French cultivar, a single. There is even a Lemoine-named species, philadelphus lemoinei, but I'm afraid I'm too simple to unravel all the threads here.
Meanwhile, my neighbor Peggy has a very graceful mockorange in the very graceful yard of her very wonderful Victorian house. I'm not sure it's the same as the miraculous one that I had, and this promises to keep me up nights for years, but beggars can't be choosers. Peggy's offered me a shoot.