I haven’t always liked hydrangeas. As a child living in the Bronx, I saw a number of houses on our street wirh tiny yards that held a blue hydrangea or two. In spite of the interesting color and flower heads that everyone called ‘snowballs’ I did not like them. Who can explain dislikes? And the things a child takes against are even more mysterious.
Though I rarely saw hydrangeas in gardens as a new gardener, over the past years they have become very popular. Decorating magazines started showing hydrangea blossoms in summerl bouquets and dried flower arrangements. Hybridizers became very busy creating new varieties. I started paying attention.
Years ago, on a garden tour, I saw a huge oakleaf hydrangea. It was enormous, resting and spreading itself in a fence corner reminding me of a granny with a generous lap. The flowers were not snowball mopheads, but had a tall conical shape I found very attractive. The oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) has a lot of advantages. It is native to the United States and so supports the local food web for birds, butterflies and insects. It is very hardy, to zone 3, and it tolerates drier and sunnier conditions than mophead varieties. In the fall the foliage turns beautiful rich colors.
Last summer I bought an oakleaf hydrangea from Nasami Farm Nasami Farm in Whately. It serves several purposes for me. First, it is a native shrub. Second, it will grow very large and spready so that I can mulch underneath it and eliminate some lawn. Third, I will have large conical flowers for a long season that I like much more than the mopheads. Like most white hydrangeas these flowers will become tinged with pink in the fall. There are smaller oakleaf hydrangea hybrids like Pee Wee for those who limited space. Pee Wee will only grow about four feet tall and as wide, instead of having a six foot spread.
Having planted the oakleaf variety I thought that a hydrangea hedge would do away with more lawn than a single shrub so I planted Limelight, a hybrid that I bought on sale. Limelight (H. paniculata) can easily get more than six feet tall and have an equal spread. Just what I need for reducing lawn. Limelight is very hardy and has chartreuse flowers from summer into fall when they will become paler and then shade to pink. Soil pH which changes some mopheads blue or pink depending on soil acidity, has no effect on this variety with its elongated blossoms. Like the oakleaf, it is tolerant of drier conditions and should be pruned in the fall or very early spring because it blooms on new wood.
By the time I planted Limelight my plant account was empty, but I need one more hydrangea to complete my hedge. Pinky Winky is a very popular hydrangea because of its large flowers which can be as much as 16 inches tall. They are pink at the bottom but keep opening white at the top. These are large hardy shrubs like Limelight, with equal tolerance for sun and dry soil. I should emphasize that any new tree or shrub should be kept well watered during its first year while it is becoming firmly established.
If you’d like a rich red flower early in the season, Quick Fire is for you. It blooms earlier and the flowers turn red quickly – as suggested by the name. The flowers are airier and less dense than mopheads.
Last summer I attended my cousin’s wedding held in a friend’s garden that was planted with masses of white Annabelle hydrangeas. The bride even carried a single hydrangea for a bouquet. I found these mopheads more appealing than I had before. Annabelle has been a hardy standard for a number of years, and for those who do like mopheads, a new variety is being introduced this spring. Incrediball (H. arborscens) has creamy white flower heads that can be 12 inches across. It is similar to Annabelle which has been such a favorite, but Incrediball has sturdier stems making it less floppy. It makes a good cut flower.
The surest way to succeed with any shrub or tree, is to plant it carefully. Begin by digging a generous hole. Hydrangeas like a rich loose soil so take this opportunity to mix in a bucketful or more of compost. Check the roots when you take the shrub out of the container and if they seem compacted at all, loosen them, by raking through with your fingers or garden cultivator. Make sure that you don’t plant too high or too deeply. You can use a yardstick across the top of the dug hole to check placement. Water the plant and hole generously when you have replaced half the soil, and again when all the soil is replaced and firmly tamped down. Keep all new plantings well watered for the first season, even those that are drought tolerant. Many plants will need less fussing in future years if they are well and healthily established. Mulching will help prevent the soil from drying out rapidly.
It’s easy to see why you will find many hydrangeas marketed in the familiar green Proven Winners containers at garden centers. They are hardy, dependable, and give a long season of bloom. Just what we all desire in a plant. Photos of Limelight and Pinky Winky courtesy of Proven Winners.
Between the Rows February 13, 2010