Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’

This is my season of loss, and of recovery. In the garden I can confront sad and painful memories without feeling their sting too keenly. The beauty surrounding me is an immediate balm, and the cycle of the seasons carries the healing deeper. I am comforted by the profound indifference of the flowering world to my pain. The work itself is also a cure. I tend to the needs of the plants, I secure the vision of the garden, and I forget myself. The days pass and I grow in strength. When the scent of sweet peas reminded me of a woman I had loved, I didn’t remember her in her final months, I remembered her beautiful star shooting through our sky.

When I  opened the gate and walked in the garden this week, the air was filled with the scent of Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’, heady and intoxicating. It is heavier and sweeter than my usual taste, but perhaps as I am most aware of it in the chill of the morning after a clear night, or the cool of the evening after the heat of the day when the scent is tempered, like a sweet dessert wine, chilled until its glass frosts, I enjoy it deeply. It settles within the walls as if it is denser than air. It was one of the favourites of a former lover and I had thought its flowering season, from now into July, would probe wounds which are barely healed. I find a garden not only enables me to confront painful memories, it also gifts me new, happy ones. Although I barely sleep, I am starting to dream again.

There are plants in the garden which give consistently. Nepeta, for example, starts to flower in March or April and will flower all summer until it is cut back to its crown in autumn. Other plants give in waves, having two or three seasons of interest, such as Crataegus pedicellata. Then there are the plants which burst into fire and blaze so brightly, and for a time their glory outshines the rest of the garden, but, within a month, they are gone, retreating into anonymity. ‘Belle Etoile’ is one of these. The flower is lovely in its simplicity. The flowers are borne along the arching stems, each with four white petals arranged equally, each petal marked with a purple throat. Don’t be fooled if you read that the shrub reaches 1.2m/4′ tall: I have seen plants twice that height. Some recommend it for an informal hedge, but I am ambivalent about this. It is deciduous and unlike beech or hornbeam does not hold its dead leaves through winter. It becomes a tangle of bare stems. I like my gardens to hold surprises, particularly ones which play with visual and olfactory expectations. I once placed a bench below a wall on the other side of which grew a honeysuckle. The honeysuckle was out of sight, but anybody sitting on the bench would enjoy its scent flowing over them in waves. Philadelphus can be complicit in this trickery too.

There is a strange French fairytale – surely strangeness is one of the necessities of such a tale – titled ‘La Princesse Belle-Etoile’. She had two brothers,  Petit-Soleil,  and Heureux, happiness. Beneath the gentle sun of early summer, Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’  makes me smile without shadows.


2 thoughts on “Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’

  1. The common species of Philadelphus lewisii has naturalized here. Not only is it perhaps my favorite weed, but I like how it sneaks into the gardens of those who are not at all into gardening, and makes them like it. I mean, all the guys I work with like it, even they do not know what it is. Even though it naturalized, it does not become a problem. Most are in out of the way places. It bloomed along with the black locust, which smells more like lilac than locust.


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