A feast for the senses awaits you this month on your next drive into the country. Rev up the automobile or motorcycle for a road trip down Highway 21 from Boise to Idaho City, or from Boise to McCall on Highway 55, or any number of other back roads where you see white flowers sparkling on a large, scrubby-looking bush. The mock orange or syringa, Idaho's state flower, will be in full bloom perfuming the air. The simple four-petaled white flowers are one to two inches across and crowned in the center with a burst of yellow stamens. (Stamens are the male portions of the flower that bear the pollen.)
Mock orange is legendary for its powerful fragrance reminiscent of orange blossoms; hence the name. It was once used in garlands and wedding bouquets for June brides. Its other common name—syringa, comes from a Greek word that means "pipe," referring to the stems which were hollowed out and used to make pipe stems. It is a little confusing because Syringa is also used as the genus name for lilac. Lilac stems were also used to make pipe stems in the olden days. Both mock orange and lilac have pith (a soft white tissue) inside their woody stems that can be reamed out if you are in need of a tube of sorts. The Turks supposedly treasured both plants for making pipe stems. What may have added to the confusion in names is that both plants—mock orange and lilac, were introduced to the West at around the same time. Never having made a pipe stem before, I had to see if it was really possible. The mock orange stem I found was a lot easier to ream than the lilac stem, but I expect if you were hard up for a smoke you'd take the time with the lilac. Now all I need is a corncob to make the pipe bowl, some "tobaccy" and a rocking chair to give me that back hills country granny look.
The genus name for mock orange is Philadelphus, referring to Philadelphia. This genus is home to 65 deciduous shrubs known for their ability to provide a good floral display even in poor soil. (Deciduous plants lose their leaves each winter.) Mock orange shrubs can reach 10 to 12 feet tall and wide; they resist most pests and diseases, and are very cold hardy and drought tolerant. They do require quite a bit of space in the landscape, unless you choose a dwarf variety like Dwarf Snowflake (4 feet tall and wide) or the popular, compact variety Manteau d'Hermine (3 to 4 feet tall and wide). Read the tags to find out the height and width when checking out mock orange at the nursery.
There are many wonderful varieties available like Aureus with yellow foliage instead of the typical green leaves, and Variegatus which has green leaves with creamy white edges. The variety Innocence has leaves with a blotch of white variegation in the middle of the leaves. The new hybrids that are out now will give you a choice of flower size and smell. Some are double flowered like Minnesota Snowflake and Virginal. Love those names.
Let your nose do the purchasing for you if you're after the fine aroma of the mock orange since with hybridizing some of the cultivars have lost much of their heady fragrance. Most of the mock orange shrubs are extremely cold hardy, you'll find them thriving up in Canada. There's even one named Waterton after the Waterton National Park on the Alberta-Montana border where that variety was found. Sometimes the more cold hardy hybrids have words like snow or frost in their names to give you a clue as to their resistance to cold temperatures, examples are: Frosty Morn, Snowflake, Snowdwarf, Snowgoose and Minnesota Snowflake.
Mock orange is a low maintenance plant. A native of Europe and Asia, it thrives in full to partial sun and it's not picky about soil type. Seeing mock orange growing out of the rocks along Highway 21, where no one but Mother Nature waters, pretty much speaks for its hardy constitution.
Over time the plant tends to get bare and sticky/woody at the base with the flowers and leaves growing high up and out of reach. To prevent this, remove several of the oldest, thickest stems immediately after flowering each year, so that new fresh stems can come up and fill in closer to the ground. To rejuvenate an old, woody mock orange shrub, take it clear down to within six inches of the ground and let it start up again. The plant will benefit a high phosphorus fertilizer each spring. Phosphorus helps with flower development. (Phosphorus is the second of the three numbers on the fertilizer box or bag.)
With its abundance of snowy white flowers, mock orange is an old-fashioned favorite in mixed shrub borders. It can also be used as an informal hedge. To enjoy the fragrance more fully, place this fast-growing wonder near a screened window or patio. Bees like the flowers also but they won't bother you; they're too busy gobbling up the nectar. Enjoy the orange blossom mockery of the mock orange for years to come by adding one of these dainty flowered shrubs to your yard this year.
Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send your gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or to firstname.lastname@example.org.