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. Catherine says:

    I transplanted one from my Grandmother’s yard just before the buyer of her fabulous 1932 home arrived with bulldozers to demolish my memories. Various Master Gardeners have told me it’s heirloom… and the brief moments of scent make it worth the trimming necessary to keep the old gal in check.
    Nice addition and article Margaret.

  2. Margaret, you just answered a question that I’ve had for seven years, which is when I moved into this home. We have a gold-leaf mock orange at the corner of our garage. I adore the scent. Mine has buds that should open within the next few days.

    Two years ago, my husband mentioned that he was going to trim it. He must have been struck by blindness and a case of crazy hands, because he cut off every stalk from a height of 8-10′ down to a height of three feet with no foliage. I cried. He agreed not to prune without me anymore. We do the lilacs next weekend. :)

    Anyhow, thank you so much for choosing to focus on this plant. I should not be surprised that it is an heirloom since I rather inherited an heirloom property in this old house.

  3. balsamfir says:

    Wow, yours blooms! Mine, given to me by a friend was a tiny twiggy shrimp for three or four years, but has grown to be about 4 feet with no die back in recent years), zone 4a by the way. It never blooms though, but is a terrific lime accent all summer in my shade bed. Maybe I should make a cutting and try one in the sun?

  4. Carrie says:

    I planted a couple of mock oranges (Philadelphus lewisii ‘Cheyenne’ and Philadelphus microphyllus ‘June Bride’, zone 4 killed my buddleia) in fall of 2009, they didn’t do much last year and the June Bride is still little but the Cheyenne has BUDS on it this year! Can’t wait….

  5. Patricia Tryon says:

    What a lyrical tribute to the mock orange. It’s nice to see there might be a way and a reason to make it at home in my garden

  6. Eyvette says:

    I have this yummy scented mock orange and love it…. But every year I have trouble with aphids attacking it and sucking the life from it’s leaves before all of its flowers come to bloom. This is very frustrating , how can i prevent this and do it successfully with out using harmful chemicals.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Eyvette. I hose down the affected plants regularly, starting at the first sign of any trouble with aphids, to dislodge them, and you can also consider a horticultural oil spray if it’s more serious than that (according to package directions, of course…some links re: that are here or ask at the garden center/read the labels to see if they are labeled for the task).

  7. Deborah says:

    I inherited a wonderful mock orange when we moved to this house. It’s a big overgrown thing at the edge of a small woods, tucked in under an amelanchier, and with a mass of pinxter azaleas at its elbow. Somehow it all looks fine, and even though it only gets sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, it’s always a mass of bloom in mid-June. And the fragrance is glorious. Mine is full of buds now, and I can’t wait for it to open!

  8. Jackie says:

    Thanks, once again Margaret, for a timely post as I see the flowers just starting to form on mine. Now in it’s third year in my garden, the gold-leaf mock orange has become my absolute favourite. Not the most flowery shrub for me, and it seems to get sun scald (?) starting in mid-summer, but the bright gold turning to bright green is refreshing and seems to draw visitors right into the garden with its warmth. I was not aware of it’s maximum height and width though —oh dear.

  9. Juanita says:

    What lovely blossoms.

    I’m busy reading your book at the moment. I so thoroughly enjoyed your description of yourself on the tractor when your ex-husband pulled up.

  10. At one of our former homes (an old farmhouse) there was a hedge of mock orange. I will never forget the wonderful fragrance of that yard. They had not been pruned and were maybe 20 feet tall, but still bloomed profusely. There was also a gorgeous old shrub rose there – maybe 8 feet tall. It only bloomed once a year but when it’s pink buds turned to white, it too had a wonderful fragrance. Sadly, the house and barn are gone now. The township bought the property from later owners to build a township hall but later abandoned the idea.

  11. Nell Jean says:

    I have the despised P. indorous: lovely to look at, fragrance free. I seldom see another shrubI want, but the gold-leaf mock orange might just be the one.

  12. Jamie says:

    I’ve had one of these for several years, but never had any flowers. In the past I’ve always cut it back each spring, but this year I never got around to it. So for the first time ever the shrub is covered with flowers, and my whole side garden has a wonderful scent to go with the strong golden visual! I love it!

  13. Some mock oranges have no scent (even when the tag says they do). As I’m usually ruled by whim, I bought two duds before discovering the gold-leaf (which just happened to be in bloom and so passed the whiff test). It is the most anticipated event of the year in my wee city garden, with a scent so powerful it can fill the house. This becomes sickening after a couple of weeks. But that’s also when the blooms begin to fade.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Stephanie. Yes, some have no scent — and there is even a whole species, Philadelphus inodorus, without any fragrance (inodorus meaning scentless in botanical Latin), an American native species.

      Welcome, Jamie — who just revealed the #1 reason that plants don’t bloom. Improperly timed pruning that cuts off the dormant flower buds. Such a common thing to have happen, and I am so glad you figured it out. Here’s to many years of enjoying the blooms and pruning after.

  14. Wendy says:

    This is the time of year when I spend as much time as possible on my front porch…in order to enjoy the wonderous scent of my 3 mock oranges, which anchor the back of my front garden. Simply love them to pieces.

  15. gail says:

    Stunning color~I have an older Mock Orange and it is scentless~Must get a sweet smelling and good looking one like you’ve shown! gail

  16. Sandra Hutchison says:

    I would love to have this, because I grew up in Florida and ADORE the scent of orange blossoms, but the deer prune it every winter, which means no blossoms. (Though I never had to worry about it getting too big.) I finally gave mine away to someone who could enjoy it better.

    Same problem with Japanese kerria, though I’ve hung on pieces of that in the hope that one year they’ll leave it alone or I’ll have a fence or whatever. They prune my lilacs too, but usually miss a few buds.

    When we downsize it will be to a yard I can afford to fence….

  17. Martha Pendleton says:

    We have a lot of Philadelphus in our garden . . . the California native variety, mostly, and I love it’s light scent which permeates the air. I have a favorite spot, where I like to go and sit, take in the view and enjoy the smell of the large Philadelphus that cascades down a stone wall. It has almost completely obscured my little spot, from view, which makes it a nice, secret hideaway. I always look forward to the time that it comes into bloom. The bloom lasts for quite a long time, it seems to me, and then it is gone for an even longer time. But I never forget how much I love it, and I look forward to that time of year when that heavenly scent returns.

  18. Joy says:

    I have had a gold mock orange(yes a Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’) for over 5 years now and it refuses to bloom any flowers which drives me crazy wondering why .. it is VERY healthy, has an amazing golden lime/yellow ? glow to it .. disease and insect free .. and yet no flowers .. I would love some pointers on how to get this baby to bloom so I can smell that wonderful scent !!

  19. Jean says:

    My mom, in her late 70s, has a huge flower garden on Vancouver Island with many mock orange bushes. The double mock orange are breathtakingly beautiful and the scent fills the yard. I look forward to them every year after lilac time has passed.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jean. There really are few fragrances quite that intoxicating. Sounds like your mother’s place is a dream. nice to “meet” you!

  20. Maureen Cox says:

    I have a variety called Innocence that has single flowers and yellow variegation in the leaf. It’s really lovely in bloom – long arching branches covered in snow white flowers. Also has a light scent. It was one of the first shrubs I planted here; I”ve always loved it!

  21. Nancy in NW PA says:

    I remember an enormous mock orange bush that was intertwined with a lilac outside of the pre-Civil war farmhouse kitchen window in SW New York state (zone 4 in that location) where I was raised in the 1950s. They had never been pruned and the scent of the blooms drifting in the open window from May through June was amazing. The house, abandoned in the 80s and since fallen, is no more but the shrubs still live – bigger than ever and will probably be there another 150 years.

    This spring I’ve planted my own mock orange – Philadelphus x lemoinei Innocence from Bluestone Perennials, that has varigated leaves and is sited near a window of my own small 1940’s house in zone 5 NW PA so that I’ll be able to sit at my computer and enjoy the scent (and memories) for springs to come.

  22. Carolyn Mullet says:

    I’m sorry, Margaret, but the yellow leaved Mock Orange does nothing for me. The white flower with that leaf color makes each look weak. Something wonderful has been lost. I know yellow/gold leaves are all the rage with plant collectors but I rarely feel these plants are placed successfully. I know this is heresy to some but just because a plant breeder can produce one, doesn’t mean a new leaf color is an improvement. Give me the refreshing medium green with white flowers. Classic and beautiful for a brief but glorious garden moment. And how about the gorgeous, wild bouquets? Yum!

  23. Michael Davis says:

    I have a mock orange with the yellow leaves in spring it produces a mass of beautiful leaves then masses of small white buds . I have never seen these buds develop into flowers .The plant starts to go wrong about six weeks from starting to come into leaf then a brown edging starts to appear on the small young leaves then extending to about 15% of all leaves the leaves curling and eventually dying .I have increased the watering and bug spraying but this has not stopped the rot .Its a beautiful bush and i would really like to solve this problem .Its in a 50/50 sun and shade position beneath my lounge window facing south west . Can anyone help

  24. Susan in the Finger Lakes says:

    I will always love mockorange, because growing up, we had a hedge of it at the back of my parents’ property. I think the old woman in the house behind planted it; it had to be very old to do what it did. The branches had all arched over to our side of the line, and it formed a tunnel! Once it finished blooming (and oh, how heavenly the yard smelled while it was in flower!), that tunnel was our playhouse, clubhouse and picnic pavilion. It was nearly water-tight with all the growth, and we kids could be in there on all but the rainiest days. I couldn’t wait until I finally had a home of my own so that I could plant some!

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.