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White-flowering shrubs add understated drama to the garden

Jessica Walliser
| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, 12:06 a.m.
Butterflies love the creamy white, oval-shaped flower clusters of Clethra.
Butterflies love the creamy white, oval-shaped flower clusters of Clethra.

White gardens, including the most famous example at Sissinghurst Castle in England, are dramatic in the most understated of ways. A collection of plants with green and gray foliage that produce only white blooms, white gardens are one of the most elegant ways to combine plants.

While your own backyard likely isn’t even close to the scale of Sissinghurst, it certainly offers a small-scale opportunity to create and enjoy all the subtle glory of your own white garden.

Yes, white flowers look lovely during the day, but they really shine at night. White blooms reflect the light of dusk and dawn — and moonlight — in such a beautiful way.

If you spend a lot of time in your garden in the evenings after work, installing a white garden, or even simply adding some white-flowering plants to your landscape, creates a much needed after-work retreat.

While it’s fairly easy to find white-flowering annuals and perennials at the garden center (think geraniums, petunias, cosmos, peonies, iris and lilies), there are fewer white-flowering shrubs that come to mind for most gardeners. And there’s an even more limited selection of white-flowering shrubs that stay small-statured for those who don’t have a big yard (or for those who don’t care to be constantly pruning their shrubs).

Here is a collection of some of my favorite dwarf shrubs that produce white flowers. Each would be at home in any white garden where winter temperatures aren’t too extreme.

Most are hardy down to at least -20 degrees F and will be available from local garden centers and online garden retailers come spring.

Wabi Sabi Viburnum — Topping out at just 2 to 3 feet in height, with an equal spread, Wabi Sabi is a total doll. This dwarf version of the classic doublefile viburnum, that many gardeners already know and love, is low and wide. It’s perfect for covering slopes, lining walkways and tucking into a white garden. It’s fairly shade tolerant, too.

With strong horizontal growth, white, flat-topped spring flowers and excellent fall color, there’s not a single thing to dislike about this shrub.

Magical Snow Drops Pearl Bush — A perfect choice for a small white garden, this beautiful little deciduous shrub hits just 3 to 4 feet tall and equally as wide. Clusters of delicate white flowers emerge from round, pearl-like buds late in the spring, followed by yellow autumn color late in the season.

Ideal for conditions from full sun to part shade, this compact pearl bush blooms for 3 to 4 weeks every spring. Its soft, graceful texture looks beautiful in shrub beds and flower borders, too.

Magical Moonlight Button Bush — A compact version of a North American native shrub, in addition to being a good fit for a white garden, Magical Moonlight buttonbush is an exceptional pollinator plant. It lures and supports bees, hummingbirds and butterflies while in bloom.

Standing at half the height and width of the straight species, this shrub matures to 5 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. A very adaptable shrub that produces golf-ball-sized, creamy-white, round flower clusters in late spring, buttonbush thrives in full sun to part shade.

Little Henry Virginia Sweetspire — A long-time favorite of mine, this small-statured Virginia sweetspire is covered with pendulous clusters of fragrant, white flowers in the spring. In the fall, the thick, medium-green foliage turns a brilliant red, adding another touch of interest to the white garden.

This is a cultivar of a North American native shrub that the pollinators absolutely adore. It maxes out at about 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.

Sugartina Clethra Summersweet — This compact variety of Clethra is sweet-looking and heavily scented. Growing to just 2 to 3 feet tall and equally as wide, Clethra performs well in both partial and full sun. The creamy white, oval-shaped flower clusters are formed in mid-summer (the butterflies love it!), and the green foliage turns a striking yellow in autumn.

With a mounding, compact growth habit, this variety of Clethra would be at home in even the smallest white garden.

Bobo Panicle Hydrangea — While most Pennsylvania gardeners are out seeking the pink and blue — yet ever so elusive — flowers of mopheaded hydrangeas, smart gardeners stick with tried-and-true panicle hydrangeas that bloom without fail. Like other panicle hydrangeas, this dwarf variety produces large, white, conical panicles of blooms that last for months.

With a compact size (2-3 feet tall and wide), this variety is a guaranteed success in even the most petite white garden. They even do great in containers. Because they bloom on new wood, it’s tough to prune panicle hydrangeas incorrectly (unlike pink and blue mopheaded hydrangeas which are very sensitive to untimely pruning).

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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