great shrub: gold-leaf mock orange

philadelphus coronarius aureus 2011
AWHIFF OF SWEETNESS DRIFTED MY WAY JUST NOW, from a direction I’m not accustomed to catching one. Change of prevailing winds? No, a new shrub—the gold-leaf mock orange, or Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’—putting on the first show of its young life in its new home. Why didn’t I invite this sunny-looking, extra-fragrant thing in sooner? I had my reasons.

Mock oranges are old-fashioned shrubs—like many Spiraea, Kolkwitzia (beautybush), Deutzia—and for the most part not so popular any longer, at least not in American gardens. If you have seen an overgrown one, you’ll know why. Messy, rangy, or coarse are the words that come to mind. The other: they don’t have more than a single moment of interest each year, at flowering time. So why did I add one?

This upright, gold-leaf Philadelphus (which tones down to yellow-green in summer and can burn in hot zones in too much sun) solves the latter problem. The yellow leaves make the ‘Aureus’ form, at least, a nice companion for a longer while each year than just the moment of bloom. The messiness problem can be solved with regular pruning so that the thicket a mock orange can turn into never comes to pass.

Mock orange needs a light going over every year, just after flowering, to remove any twiggy growth that’s badly placed or weak-looking. Once the plant is established, cutting out a few of the oldest stems at the base each year will also help, assuming there’s a replacement stem emerging in that general vicinity to take its place. The idea is to promote a continuous supply of fresh wood—not let a few old, declining stems take up all the light and space.

A leggy old shrub that’s too big for its space or simply a mess can be rejuvenated—cut to near ground level in late winter or early spring, or even just after flowering if you’re greedy for the bloom before the beheading—and allowed to regrow.

In English gardens, you’ll see—or smell, more to the point—plenty of Philadelphus. But they are not made a focal point as much as part of a shrubbery or hedge, which is their best use, I think, and in the open-to-the-public gardens where I have seen them, they’re well-maintained.

If it’s fragrance you’re after, it’s hard to beat a mockorange (though various Daphne and Viburnum carlesii certainly equal or exceed).

mock orange flowersBesides the gold-leaf version of P. coronarius (Zone 5-8; 8 feet tall by slightly narrower), I like the the so-called Lemoine hybrids, or Philadelphus x lemoinei. They were named for the nursery in France where they, and various other old-fashioned favorites including deutzias, spiraeas, lilacs, and even the ‘Pee-Gee’ hydrangea, were developed. Two favorites, both with green leaves, and both Zones 5-8:

Want a smaller mock orange? The Lemoine variety ‘Manteau d’Hermine’ opens white from reddish buds and gets just 2 or 3 feet high and about twice as wide. ‘Belle Etoile’ (about 6 feet tall) has a splash of reddish inside the flower throat, at the base of each petal. Both are very fragrant–which incidentally isn’t the scent of an orange to my nose at all, but of orange blossoms (sweet, and coming from white flowers like the citrus’s perfume does, too).

But even with the best of them, remember: these are supporting cast, not the star of a design–and you’ll still have to prune.

more golden things i love

  1. What a timely post, thank you Margaret. We are going through the first year at our new property that has lots of mature gardens, trees and shrubs. You helped me identify a beautiful, fragrant flowering shrub growing between two hollies by our patio. I will give it a light pruning when it is done.

  2. Molly says:

    I have had a small one for about 6 years and the deer keep “pruning” it. Every once in a while
    I might get a flower or two. This year it looks pretty and nice and compact but do not see any
    buds. Oh well, maybe next year. My other “most favorite” plant/bush is Dictamnus or gas plant.
    I love love love it. Mine that I had for 10+ years rotted last year. I bought 3 thist year and hopefully at least one will make it.
    Love your blogs

  3. Lesley says:

    Love mockoranges – thank you for the profile of such a classic shrub. I remember them fragrantly marking my grandparents’ Ottawa Valley farm dooryard. We put in a “double” about six years ago to mark the birth of our son. It’s a lovely blossomer, just finishing now, but every single summer, we’ve had some kind of insect infestation in the leaves – maybe aphids but I’m not certain. So, we trim and kick the infected branches out to the curb. Have you ever encountered anything like it?

    1. margaret says:

      Aphids will certainly seem to make a mess of some species or other here in the garden — this year they are all over the native pokeweed, which I find funny, when there is a big vining honeysuckle (usually what they like to disfigure) only 10 feet away. I recently read about a mockorange sawfly (sawflies are related to wasps, and you might mistake the adults for some kind of wasp). The sawfly larvae (which look like caterpillars but technically are not) are voracious, like tiny worms who gobble up leaves. Have you looked closely to see if it’s little wormlike creatures at attack time (I would think it would be in May — might be too late to see)? Are the leaves eaten or just disfigured?

  4. Saiisha says:

    I only recently figured out that the gigantic bush in my front yard of my new house is a mock orange, after it started flowering – the scent is heavenly! I read somewhere they used its leaves for lather back in the day before there were soaps. I don’t know whether that’s true, because I haven’t had much luck lathering up any leaves in my shower :)

  5. Dahlink says:

    We inherited an old hedge of traditional mock orange. It is very messy, but we love it for the intoxicating scent every May. We hack away at it, but never seem to tame it. Maybe it is time for the chainsaw.

  6. Patricia N. says:

    I have 2 large mock orange shrubs that I planted 35 years ago. I love the flowers and the messiness doesn’t bother me. I would, however, like to know why the blossoms don’t smell like oranges any more? They stopped giving off their scent about 5 years ago. Do they lose their scent if you never prune them?
    I hope someone has an answer to my question; I truly miss the scent.

  7. Kathleen Peppard says:

    I’m sitting on my porch catching up on email while the scent of mock orange wafts across the yard and I see your post on the same shrub! We moved this one from our old 1911 house to our new 1923 house fifteen years ago. (I’d say it’s about 20 years old.) It’s an almost perfect shrub for the location because it blooms just as it gets warm enough to sit outside here in the Pacific Northwest. (However, it leans to the southeast, stretching toward the light.) Like lilacs and roses, it is worth having simply for the scent of the flowers, even though the shrubs themselves are no great beauties. I am emboldened to do a more severe pruning after it finishing blooming this year. Thanks for the tip!

  8. Mary H. says:

    There was a mock orange outside my bedroom window when I was a kid back in the 60s. I remember lying in bed and smelling that wonderful scent. I now own a house and about eight years ago decided to plant a mock orange. The one at my parents’ house had unfortunately been cut down so I couldn’t get a cutting. Instead I bought a good, sturdy looking one at Lowes. It wasn’t blooming at the time. What a mistake! When the thing finally bloomed, it smelled like moth balls and has for the past eight years. Even my mom says it stinks. Next Spring I’m cutting it down and going to a genuine nursery to buy another one. Any idea why this one would smell bad? Not hybridized correctly?

  9. Tisa says:

    LOVE, love, love P.c. ‘Aureus’ as a landscape shrub! When I lived in the SF Bay Area (zone 9), I planted one by a sitting arbor and it was often the first fragrant thing to bloom in my back yard. I had it tucked behind some other plants so it wouldn’t dominate in the summer when the dry heat can make it a bit raggedy. Now I live in zone 5/6 (Columbus, Ohio) and I’m so happy to see large, old plants all over my neighborhood. It’s truly an adaptive shrub and requires no more than average regular maintenance. Thanks for giving this worthy plant a shout-out!

  10. june2 says:

    There’s a 12′ hedge of them in our healthfood store’s parking lot and they are Wonderful! Makes a great hedge really. That way it get’s regular pruning.

  11. Joanne says:

    How much sun does a mock orange require? I have an area in a corner that is behind an Atlas Cedar that gets some filtered late afternoon sun. I thought maybe a mock orange would be good or go with a Rhoddie?

    Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      It won’t do well in serious shade, having few flowers and dull greener leaves than bright gold ones in that situation. Best to choose something that is more adapted to shade, and the conditions you’re describing sounds very shady.

  12. Mary Ann Q says:

    My Mom has a hedge about 15′ long in front of an outbuilding on her property. Every year she’d prune it along with a 120′ privet hedge. Well at some point she called it a mock apple or a mock orange. I don’t know which!? This July will be the 3rd year she is no longer with us in body. My family now lives in her house, my childhood home. The house that had past from my maternal grandfather, to my Mom & now to me. I noticed this spring a sweet smell in the air, only to realize it was coming from the mock ??? orange! She used the hedge of mock orange to block the view of the outbuilding. My Mom had a pruning routine which I have not been able to keep up with. So I’m a little behind. At the age of 81, she could put most of us to shame with her physical abilities (NO joke!) She had always had the mock orange hedge pruned before the flowers bloomed so I had no idea of the beautiful scent. Well Mom, I think there’s going to be a little delay in the pruning schedule. I hope she doesn’t mind. Thanks Margaret for the correct name and the loving remembrances of things past.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.