TIME FOR A botanical party game. If everyone in our region could grow the same plant, what should it be? Inspired by the popular Seattle Reads “one book, one city” program offered through the public library, I put my question to a number of local gardeners.
At the tail end of yet another dark winter day, I get my first response. Mary Flewelling Morris, she of “Garden Jeopardy” fame, writes, “I dream of increasing light. Imagine if everyone planted a Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’. The bright yellow foliage would cheer up the whole region.”
Sundance Mexican orange is a handsome evergreen shrub with luminous golden foliage that lights up the garden even in — especially in — winter. Clusters of white sweet-smelling star-shaped blossoms, similar to orange blossoms (thus the common name), fill the garden with fragrance in spring, and then again in fall, with sporadic blooms all summer.
It’s rich in nectar, so bees and butterflies are drawn to the simple form of the open blossoms. Even the glossy foliage is aromatic. Some call it pungent; I find it pleasant. All summer long, I harvest short stems to create a fragrant ruff around humble garden posies.
Beneath its cheery disposition, Mexican orange has a steely constitution. Native to the American Southwest and most of Mexico, Choisya is drought-tolerant and pest-free. Smaller than the straight species, ‘Sundance’ has a compact rounded form and grows 4-to-6-feet tall and as wide. While the plant flourishes in full sun, it happily tolerates shade with only a slight dimming of its golden yellow foliage. Situate ‘Sundance’ where it will get morning sun to keep its glow burnished brightly.
My approach to balancing a small garden with my giant love for all things growing is to plant in generous layers; others call it “cram-scaping.” ‘Sundance’ thrives in my back garden in dry shade beneath a tree in the company of bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), Japanese tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) and the strappy foliage of stinking iris (Iris foetidissima). It’s a tough squad of hardworking, low-maintenance ground covers that prevent weeds from getting a foothold. Seriously, it’s one of the lowest-maintenance areas of my entire landscape. A quick early-spring grooming session is all that’s needed to tidy winter-worn foliage.
When introducing ‘Sundance’ into your garden, get creative. Glossy foliage and fragrant blooms have a bit of a tropical vibe, if that’s your dream. A block of multiple plants massed in a contemporary landscape has a graphic effect. Pot it up in a large container for instant impact.
On a practical note, with attractive foliage filled out all the way to the ground, Mexican orange is an ideal candidate for narrow foundation planting beds and is easily kept beneath window height. Or maybe you just want a tidy low hedge that doesn’t require a lot of pruning. Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ prefers full sun to partial shade and well-drained acid soil. In addition to being drought-tolerant and low-maintenance, the plant is deer- and rabbit-resistant. And for those of you training new pandemic puppies, the plant’s flexible stems are resilient and nontoxic. Hardy in zone 7-10.