Had Carl Sandburg penned a poem about the way a captivating scent wafts through the air (prior to his famous “Fog”), he might have written that it approaches us “on little cat feet.” Like fog, scent is silent, but invisible, and adds a fresh, sensual dimension to a garden (or a walk in the woods for that matter). One of the most fragrant flowering shrubs is mock orange, and the Pacific Northwest’s native offering, Philadelphus lewisii (Western or Lewis’ mock orange), doesn’t disappoint.
P. lewisii is named after scientist and explorer Meriwether Lewis, who collected it in 1806 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Native Americans had numerous uses for it, including making tools, snowshoes, furniture, and even soap. Plan ahead and place this medium-sized deciduous shrub where its fragrance can be noticed.
How it grows
Although there is quite a bit of individual variation within this species, its structure and growth pattern goes something like this: Maturing at 5 to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, this fairly fast-growing shrub may send out arching basal shoots as it ages. In late spring, flowering shoots appear, followed by vegetative growth. Rich green, egg-shaped leaves (roughly three inches long) grow in pairs along its stems. At the tips of branches, multiple clusters of white, four-petalled blossoms adorned with soft yellow stamens emerge in late spring or early summer, sparkling against the leafy green backdrop. Flowers measure one to two inches in diameter, and offer a lovely, fruity fragrance.
Mock orange’s fragrance doesn’t just appeal to us, though—it attracts nocturnal moths and butterflies like the western tiger swallowtail. As they feed on its nectar and incidentally brush against the flower’s anthers, thousands of male pollen particles are released, pollinating its flowers. Other pollinators attracted to scent include bees, but also syrphid flies (aka flower flies), which particularly like white and yellow flowers. In late summer and fall, mock orange’s wildlife appeal continues as the plant’s tiny seeds are consumed by many species of birds, as well as squirrels. It also provides twiggy cover year round.
Try it at home
Mock orange is easy to grow. It tolerates both drought (after it’s established, of course) and moisture, and will do well in full to part sun or in a fair amount of shade (but not deep, dark shade). It’s also a good shrub for stabilizing soil on slopes. While it’s not fussy about soil, incorporating and/or mulching with some organic matter (like compost) will get it off to a good start.
Grab a partner
Though not common, western mock orange is widespread. It occurs naturally from southern B.C. to northern California and the Sierras, and east to Alberta and western Montana, at low to mid-elevations. Growing along creeks and seeps and forest edges, on hillsides, and within chaparral and pine and fir communities, it associates with species such as Douglas-fir, oceanspray, ninebark, Indian plum, baldhip rose, tall Oregon grape, and others. Try it as a member of a multi-species (unclipped) hedgerow. If pruning is necessary, do it soon after flowering, so that the next year’s delightful blossoms aren’t affected. To stimulate flowering on older shrubs, cut back flowered growth to strong young shoots, cutting out up to 20 percent of aging stems near their base.
Other fragrant PNW plants include wallflower (Erysimum capitatum), Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and other native roses, Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), and black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii). Enjoy!