Mock Orange: B.C.’s Native Hydrangea

The native shrub mock orange has long captivated gardeners with its heady fragrance and showy blooms.

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Mock orange is a native BC shrub that has long captivated gardeners with its heady fragrance and showy blooms

Botanical scents are everywhere these days – in shampoos, in soaps, in air fresheners. Yet there is still little that matches the delicious fragrance of a plant in the garden. One of our most beautiful native shrubs, mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), provides gardeners with a wonderful scent, and much more.

Meet mock orange

Mock orange is the only native plant species in British Columbia that belongs to the horticulturally valuable Hydrangea family. It forms a three- to five-metre-tall, somewhat spreading, many-stemmed bush. Grey, stringy bark covers its old branches. At the core of its young orange to brown stems there is a soft, spongy pith. Its deciduous leaves are arranged in an opposite manner mainly on the twigs. The 2.5- to nine-centimetre-long leaves have entire to toothed margins and an oval to elliptical shape, and its leaf surfaces have a sandpaper-like texture with prominent major veins. Loose, elongate clusters of snow-white flowers appear at the end of the branches from late May to July, depending on the shrub’s location. Typically, three to 11 four-petalled blooms, each four centimetres or more across, form a cluster. Greenish sepals surround the petals, and a mass of yellow-tipped stamens punctuates the display. The greenish four-chambered pistil in the middle of each flower matures into a dry, dark-brown pointed capsule.

More on native shrubs and plants

An orange-like fragrance wafts from the open blossoms. Coastal plants are said to be more strongly scented than those of the Interior, but neither are quite as fragrant as forms and hybrids of the European mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius). In parts of England, mock orange flowers were even used in place of orange blossoms in the wedding bouquets of country brides. Some folks, however, find the fragrance of mock orange troublesome. The famed English herbalist John Gerrard claimed that the scent awakened him from sleep and he could not rest until the blooms were taken away. To avoid the fragrance, E.A. Bowles, the renowned bulb expert from England, either left the country, or had the buds removed at bloom time.

Where to find mock orange

Mock orange ranges throughout the southern quarter of B.C., including Vancouver Island. Its North American range extends to California and Montana. You can expect to find this shrub in a variety of habitats, which is a good indicator of its garden usefulness. It grows near watercourses, on shallow soils over rocks and cliffs and in open woods. Look for splashes or swaths of white on the rocky rubble slopes of the southern interior. Gardeners have long prized mock orange for its showy flowers and exotic scent. David Douglas, the famed botanical explorer of our region, brought it to European gardens in 1825. In your garden, choose a site in full sun and and soil of normal fertility. Try it in the shrub border, as a lawn specimen or at the edge of a woodland patch. Combine this shrub with other native species, such as Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), into a wildlife-friendly, people-resistant hedge. Power-line right-of-ways are suitable sites because of the mock orange’s modest height. As the shrub benefits from a bit of annual attention, prune flower-bearing branches once the flowers have died away in the summer. New buds develop on the new wood of the year, so pruning later in the year reduces the floral display.

Grow your own mock orange

Mock orange is widely available from garden centres and nurseries, and it germinates readily from seed. For a wild effect, you can scatter seeds over the site where you would like the plant to grow, and let nature take over. Seeds sown in flats in the fall germinate readily in the spring. Mock orange roots easily from cuttings taken in mid-July and treated with hormone. To establish a mock orange on a dry, rocky site, mulch and water it well for a year or two. British Columbia’s First Nations people valued the hard wood of mock orange, as well as the soap-like material released from the leaves, which they used to cleanse the skin and wash clothing. Snowshoes, digging sticks, spear shafts and arrows were crafted from the wood in the province’s Interior regions, while aboriginal people of the Kamloops area fashioned fish spears, combs and decorations. In the Kootenays, special tools were made for combing huckleberries from the bushes, and Lillooet children made blow guns from hollowed-out branches. Okanagan First Nations people recognized the value of mock orange as a biological indicator. When the shrub bloomed they knew that the groundhogs (marmots) had fattened up nicely and it was time for hunting. It’s hard to imagine a better native shrub for wild or tame gardens in our region. The dense intertwined branches of mock orange are even ideal for bird nests. Bushtits hang their small pouches among the branches, while other birds assemble more conventional nests in the crotches of the stems. With its attractive blooms and intoxicating fragrance, mock orange will serve you and your local bird life well for many years. The following plants are hardy up to the zone number indicated: (European) mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius) – zone 5 Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) – zone 5 Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) – zone 3 Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) – zone 6 Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) – zone 3 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.