Antique white, bone white, dove white, ivory white, lily white, linen white, milk white, moon white, paper white, pearly white, shell white, snow white, wool white…..Well, isn’t white just white anymore? It is often recommended for rendering brightness, spaciousness and neatness to a home and symbolizes purity and peace.

White grandeur

In gardens, white flowers usher a great sense of tranquility and beauty. In patios, porticos, balconies and lintels, white flowers communicate a pleasant aura of peace and pleasure. They are a popular choice for decorations, bouquets, garlands and wreaths, especially commercial cut-flowers like asters, carnations, chrysanthemums, daisies, gerberas and tulips.

White flowers come in all sizes – tiny and star-studded neem and Ivory wood flowers but also large and showy Gardenia, Powder Puff, Bauhinia, Plumeria, Datura and Trumpet flowers. The common ones are bougainvilleas, periwinkle and Ixora. Pristine wild areas in urbanscapes have leadworts (Plumbago zeylanica), pyramid flowers (Melochia pyramidata), binding weed (Evolvulus nummularis) and creeping foxglove (Asystasia gangetica). In the façade of a building, hanging gardens can be made with climbers and creepers that produce white colours like the bridal bouquet (Porana paniculata), jewel vine (Derris scandens), white lady (Thunbergia fragrans), paper flower (Bougainvillea spectabilis) and White Coral vine (Antigonon leptopus). Favourite backyard plants like papaya, drumstick, curry plant and flamingo bill (Agathi) too produce white flowers. The Trumpet flowers that fall to the ground create a white floral carpet and culturally too, white flowers like jasmine and champak are greatly appreciated and desired by women.

White flowers in gardens signal our attention because of their luminous contrast against green leaves, their fragrance and their charm. Most white flowers bloom at dusk and leave a gentle fragrance wafting in the air. Such flowers emit sweet fragrances that enters our homes, creating an ‘aroma-therapeutic effect’. But unfortunately, when windows are tightly secured at night, alas, the sweet perfume is sadly missed. Flowers of Gardenia, Plumeria, Jasmine, Millingtonia (maramalli), coral jasmine (pavazha malli), are natural, therapeutic room-fresheners, unlike the synthetic and chemically-loaded ones. The heavily scented flower of Chinese Myrtle (Murraya exotica) blooms for a brief period and portend short rain spells.

Dusk visitors

Because of their blooming time, these flowers are often collectively known as ‘night-queens’ and attract insects for night-shifts. Nocturnal pollinators like moths usually visit these white flowers for their copious nectar and sometimes for the pollen bounty. White flowers are usually hauntingly fragrant and it is this heavy fragrance that offers olfactory advertisement and guides the pollinators to their respective floral food pits. The moths are not as attractive as their butterfly cousins and also are not as appreciated as butterflies in art, literature and movies. Could this be the reason for moths to shy away during day time and actively carry out clandestine business at night, a hidden agenda unknown to many? At the end of this secret encounter, it is mutualistic for the flower as well as the moth. Flowers get pollinated and the moths get their sumptuous dinner. A late night stroll in the garden might deliver many sweet surprises on biotic interactions. Indeed, what we don’t see is much more than what we really see!

Interestingly the flowers of the ornamental Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum, earlier known as Quisqualis indica) are white in colour on the first night of bloom, horizontally-oriented and are pollinated by moths. The following day, they turn to pink and red, become pendulous and are pollinated during daytime by bees, flies and sunbirds. The large, white flowers of the giant baobab (Adansonia digitata) bloom at night adjunct with a strong, musty odour that attract bats which navigate to the flower using high frequency echolocation.

Sadly, white flowers often go unnoticed because of their more common garish counterparts in shades of yellow and red. Apparently taking photographs of white is very tricky because either it becomes blurred or gets burnt.

Many famous songs immortalize white flowers like ‘A little white gardenia’, and the unforgettable classic ‘Edelweiss’ from the movie Sound of Music. Edelweiss is a small white flower of the aster family that grows on the mountainous meadows whose camaraderie brings cheer and goodwill, which is aptly portrayed in the song -

Edelweiss, Edelweiss

Every morning you greet me

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to meet me...