An ode to hydrangeas
I have always loved hydrangeas. My earliest plant memory is of the beautiful blue blooms on the hydrangeas at my babysitter’s, 50 years ago. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate them even more. Their tolerance of salt, sand and wind make them a great fit for seashore gardening.
When someone mentions hydrangeas, most people think of the big-leaf types that feature large round clusters of pink or blue blossoms. This species, Hydrangea macrophylla, is by far the most widely planted in our area, and it comes in a huge array of colors, sizes and flower forms.
Sizes can range from the diminutive “Pia,” at 2 feet tall, to the massive “Bethany Beach” which tops 6 feet. Colors include white, pinks, reds, purples and blues, and flowers may be either the large round balls, the mop-heads, or the flat and delicate lace-cap types. In some varieties, the flower color can vary depending on the soil pH, allowing the gardener to adjust the color to suit his preference.
Most varieties of big-leaf hydrangeas bloom on stems that grew the previous season, called “old wood.” Their bloom season is generally from late May to late July. Plant breeders have introduced some newer varieties that bloom on both old wood and new wood, extending the bloom season throughout the summer.
Some of the extended bloom types are “Penny Mac,” the “Endless Summer” series and the “Let’s Dance” series. These include both mop-head and lace-cap types, in pinks, blues and white.
Beyond the big-leaf family, there are several other species of great garden hydrangeas. Our native oak-leaf hydrangea is a beautiful plant in multiple seasons. Its large, lobed foliage is attractive throughout the season and provides a perfect backdrop for the lovely cone-shaped white blooms in early summer. In fall, the foliage takes on rich burgundy hues. Ranging in size from 4 feet to more than 12 feet, they can make a dramatic statement in the shady garden.
If truly massive blooms are your thing, the smooth-leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens, is the plant for you! With blooms 10 to 12 inches across, understated it is not. These come in varieties of white or pink and bloom on new wood, guaranteeing blooms regardless of pruning or weather. “Annabele,” “Incrediball” and “Invincibelle Spirit” are some varieties of smooth-leaf hydrangeas.
For sheer versatility and durability, you can’t go wrong with the panicle hydrangeas, Hydrangea paniculata. These rugged beauties can tolerate anything from full sun to full shade, wet feet or dry, and still look great. They feature large cone-shaped blooms, or panicles, in shades of white or pink that change continuously as the flower matures. These are large shrubs, ranging from 6 to 12 feet, depending on the variety.
The variety “Pinky Winky” (no, I don’t make these names up!) is a particularly luscious confection of white and strawberry pink. “Limelight” is a unique shade of chartreuse that lights up a garden. “Little Lime” is a compact form of “Limelight” that only grows to 4 feet.
With the exception of the panicle hydrangeas, most of these shrubs prefer morning sun and afternoon shade, or dappled light all day. Give them plenty of water throughout the growing season and a good organic fertilizer each spring.
If you want to manipulate the color of the big-leafs, add lime to make them pinker, or garden acidifier or sulfur to go blue. Do this in early spring before buds are showing. If you need to prune the big-leaf types, do it immediately after they bloom, no later than early August, unless they are an extended-bloom variety. They other types can all be pruned in the spring if needed.
No other flower says “summer at the beach” quite like hydrangeas. Why not plant some nostalgia in your garden?
Ginger Hogan is a Delaware Certified Nursery Professional. Do you have questions you’d like to have answered in a future column? Send them to Ginger at firstname.lastname@example.org.