Mock orange (sometimes called sweet mock orange) is a pretty shrub or small tree with fragrant, white flowers that appear in springtime and last until early summer. With their many yellow stamens, they might remind you of early blooming roses. But look again: These brilliant flowers have four petals and four sepals – quite distinctive on close inspection – and the leaves are oppositely placed on the stems. This isn’t a rose at all, but a lovely plant known as Philadelphus.

Mock Orange Trees

This spectacular mock orange flowers every spring in my neighbor’s garden.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Mock Orange blooms

Mock orange flowers are typically very white and four-petaled with many stamens. They persist on the plant for several weeks in late spring or early summer.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Mock Orange shrubs

This aged mock orange has thrived with little care for many years.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Mock Orange ‘Aureus’

The yellow foliage of ‘Aureus’ mock orange makes a lovely backdrop to the showy flowers.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

At one time, mock orange shrubs were among the most popular plants found in landscapes within USDA hardiness zones 4-8. That’s quite a large range, and considering that the plant adapts well to many soils, it’s surprising that we don’t see this beauty more frequently. (In my north Texas region, I’ve found only three plants, and two of them were in one very old landscape.) Even though mock oranges can still can be found and enjoyed in many botanical gardens that display old-fashioned landscape plants, home gardeners – and their landscapes – are missing out on a great plant!

Mock orange is a vigorous, easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant shrub – and it has few pest problems. So why haven’t we seen more of this pretty plant in the landscape? A likely reason for its ebb in popularity is its deciduous nature, as there are so many evergreen flowering shrubs available. Some consider mock orange to be a “single-season” plant. Yet there’s a place in the landscape for shrubs that flower once in the season – particularly when their flowers are as spectacular as those of Philadelphus and boast a hardiness range from the Deep South to the extreme far northern US!

With new cultivars coming out on the market, there’s surely a mock orange worth trying in your landscape.

‘Miniature Snowflake’, for example, is one that deserves your scrutiny. It’s a cultivar of Philadelphus x virginalis, and unlike some of the more lanky specimens, this one reaches only 3-4 feet tall and 1-2 feet wide. The plant is said to flower prolifically and fragrantly, bearing double flowers (meaning it has twice the number of petals as the species), so it has a fluffy appearance. And here’s some more good news about this beauty: It’s survived without winter damage as far north as Orono, ME!

Mock oranges are known for their orange-like fragrance, but the particular perfume may differ among species and cultivars. Philadelphus mexicanus, for example, is strongly rose-scented, Philadelphus ‘Silberregen’ (or ‘Silver Showers’) is strawberry-scented, and Philadelphus inodorus has no fragrance at all. And there are other differences to note: In many mock oranges, the leaves have dentate (or toothed) margins, while others are nearly smooth. Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ produces golden-yellow leaves that turn yellow-green in summer, and Philadelphus coronarius ‘Variegatus’ has leaves with broad, white margins.

The blooms differ, too. They can be cup- or bowl-shaped, sometimes cross-shaped, single, semidouble or double – again, it all depends on the selection. Philadelphus ‘Buckley’s Quill’ has unusual quill-like petals that are produced singly or in racemes of 3-5, and Philadelphus purpurascens has white blooms with dark purple sepals. Flower size may be as small as 1 inch across (like with Philadelphus microphyllus) or up to 2 inches (in some Philadelphus x virginalis cultivars).

You can plant mock orange in any well-drained soil, or even in those not so well-drained, for that matter. Most thrive in full sun or partial shade. (Philadelphus microphyllus, Philadelphus mexicanus and Philadelphus texensis, all Southwestern natives, require full sun.) Thin out old wood soon after flowering, but protect the young shoots because they’ll produce flowers next year. And that’s about it!

Many gardeners find that they can position these plants behind or within other landscape selections or in an obscure location where a plant will go almost unnoticed until it begins to flower in April or May. The innate legginess of older mock orange selections now gives way to the new, semidwarf varieties that are attractive and compact for a more contemporary landscape. Even better, the cultivars with colored or variegated foliage provide ornamental interest beyond their blooming periods.

So do give mock orange a try – it’s time for a comeback!