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Pale Fire: Planting White Flowers

Nothing lights up shadowy recesses like pure-white flowers. Fortunately, there are enough choices to make every garden shine all season -- even at night.
Martha Stewart Living, June 2008

Whether or not they go for witchcraft and wizardry, smart gardeners use white magic to cast irresistible spells: bouncing sunshine into shadows, snaring moonbeams, cooling down heat waves, coaxing tense psyches to chill out.

This mojo is second nature to plants with blooms and variegated leaves in the most luminous of colors, white, but it doesn't take a botanical sorcerer to master its power. As prisms reveal, every ray of white light contains a rainbow. Bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs, and flowering trees all present a vast spectrum of pale tones -- cream to ecru, snow to silver, gentle to dazzling -- that mingle with ease.

White blossoms and foliage reflect and intensify their neighbors' hues. Many white flowers have touches of other shades, such as wine, saffron, and lime green, in their throats and on their petals. Some blush pink or take on a golden glow as they age, complementing flora that have more saturated tints. And because white is literally a highlight, it helps to focus a garden's organizing structure.

The four groupings of cut specimens illustrated here only hint at the profusion of combos available from garden centers and nursery catalogs. A single variety or a mixed sampling can sparkle in a container, awaken a sleepy flower bed, or dapple a dim lawn. A multiseasonal assortment ensures a succession of great moments from spring to fall -- proof that monochromatic need not mean monotonous.

Ever since one-color gardens came into fashion around the mid-19th century, the all-white scheme has been a sort of horticultural holy grail. Age-old associations with chastity, gentility, and peace (think white wedding, white-shoe, and white dove) polished the white garden's halo, and the modernist vogue for all-white rooms gave it a stylish aura. Although history records notable Victorian examples (including a Massachusetts pleasure ground accessorized with white cattle, oxen, sheep, and poultry), the iconic white garden was created half a century ago by English writer Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle.

Contemporaries often called such designs moon gardens, a romantic notion based in science: The human eye's short cells, or cones, which register most colors, gradually tune out as the sun sets, while the long rods -- specialists at black-and-white vision -- amp up at dusk, so that white plants stand out as other vegetation fades into darkness.

Equally entrancing is the sweet fragrance that many white blooms exude at night, an added attraction for nocturnal insect pollinators. These attractions also work like a charm for human species, beckoning backyard hosts and guests in search of evening refreshment.

Sackville-West, who strolled through her white plot before and after dinner, actually described it as "my grey, green, and white garden." There, in a nutshell, are the ingredients for successful white-theme plantings. Grayish leaves, especially fuzzy or velvety ones, enhance the shimmer of white flowers, and true-green foliage provides a dramatic backdrop for incandescent contrasts. As plant-magic scholar Harry Potter would say, the result is brilliant.

Early-Spring Bloomers

1. Fothergilla gardenii (fothergilla): shrub, Zones 5 to 9
2. Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba' (white bleeding heart): perennial, Zones 3 to 9
3. Narcissus 'Actaea' (poeticus daffodil): bulb, Zones 3 to 8
4. Leucojum aestivum (snowflake): bulb, Zones 4 to 9
5. Epimedium x youngianum 'Niveum' (barrenwort, bishop's hat): perennial, Zones 5 to 8
6. Helleborus 'Brandywine' (lenten rose): perennial (double-flowered variety, left; single, right), Zones 4 to 9
7. Cornus florida (flowering dogwood): tree, Zones 5 to 8

Mid- to Late-Spring Bloomers

1. Syringa vulgaris 'Jan van Tol' (common lilac): shrub, Zones 3 to 8
2. Pulmonaria 'Sissinghurst White' (lungwort): perennial, Zones 3 to 9
3. Allium 'Mount Everest' (ornamental onion): bulb, Zones 4 to 8
4. Tulipa 'Purissima' syn. 'White Emperor' (tulip): bulb, Zones 3 to 8
5. Aquilegia flabellata 'Alba' (fan columbine): perennial, Zones 3 to 9
6. Iris germanica 'Alba' (dwarf bearded iris): bulb, Zones 4 to 9
7. Pieris japonica (Japanese pieris): shrub, Zones 5 to 8
8. Rhododendron 'Cunningham's White' (white rhododendron): shrub, Zones 5 to 8

Summer Bloomers

1. Boltonia asteroides (false aster): perennial, Zones 3 to 9
2. Dahlia 'White Alva's' (dahlia): bulb, Zones 8 to 10
3. Cosmos bipinnatus 'Sonata White' (Mexican aster): annual, Zones 5 to 10
4. Lysimachia clethroides (gooseneck loosestrife): perennial, Zones 3 to 8
5. Phlox paniculata 'Mother of Pearl' (garden phlox): perennial, Zones 4 to 8
6. Echinacea purpurea 'White Swan' (white swan coneflower): perennial, Zones 4 to 9
7. Nepeta cataria 'Snowflake' (white catnip): perennial, Zones 3 to 7

Late-Summer Bloomers

1. Thunbergia alata 'Bright Eyes' (black-eyed Susan vine): tender perennial, Zones 5 to 11
2. Lilium 'Casablanca' (oriental lily): bulb, Zones 3 to 8
3. Platycodon grandiflorus 'Hakone White' (balloon flower): perennial, Zones 3 to 9
4. Hibiscus syriacus 'Diana' (rose of Sharon): shrub, Zones 5 to 8
5. Hosta 'Ginko Craig' (hosta): perennial, Zones 3 to 9
6. Rosa rugosa 'Alba' (white rugosa rose): shrub, Zones 3 to 8
7. Hydrangea paniculata (panicle hydrangea): shrub, Zones 4 to 9