five hundred miles

One of my favorite mail-order nurseries notes that customers have driven five hundred miles to get this plant, Philadelphus lewisii.

I think mine might be the one called ‘Cheyenne’, introduced by Plant Select from the Cheyenne Experimental Station, but it could be the regular one, because I don’t know what the difference is. I did buy two certified ‘Cheyenne’ mockoranges and planted them elsewhere in the garden.

This is the state flower of Idaho, where they rather strangely call it a “syringa”, which is of course a lilac, but then, easterners call mockoranges syringas, too. It’s not a syringa any more than it is a tomato, and if someone asked me about my syringas I would automatically assume they were talking about lilacs, because lilacs are syringas and mockoranges are not. They’re not even in the same family and have nothing to do with each other. When I publish this post, everyone will stop calling them by the wrong name tomorrow. Watch and see. Such is the influence I wield over the gardening world.

The mockorange, which was named after Meriwether Lewis, was collected by him “on the waters of Clark’s River, 4 July 1806”, which, according to Intermountain Flora, would have been the Blackfoot River north of Missoula. To be totally precise, that was the locality of the type specimen as described by Pursh in 1814; Lewis had made an earlier collection along the Clearwater River in Idaho in May of 1806. A gardening acquaintance who lives in Idaho says its grows profusely along streams, but also in quite xeric sites as well.

The large shrub pictured is never intentionally watered (it was when young, of course) and is growing in fairly disgusting soil. It took its time deciding whether or not it was ever going to flower, and for a while I thought it might be yet another of those Big Green Things that take up space and cry out for water every time I turned around. After about five years in the garden it began to show what it could really do.

Funny thing. I didn’t even notice that it was blooming for the first time until I got this strong whiff of pineapple (some say melon) and followed my nose to the source. (The source of the smell, not my nose.) Bean, in Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, says the flowers are scentless, but both Intermountain Flora and Flora of Idaho say otherwise. “The profusion of white flowers formed often color considerable areas, and their fragrant perfume can be detected for some distance from the blossoms.”

The flowers on my plant were scentless when I took these pictures, early in the morning, focusing right into the rising sun, on a morning so chilly we even saw touches of frost on our walk. Now, as the sun warms the flowers, they are releasing their perfume. A scent easily worth a trip of five hundred miles.

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