As long ago as 1945 I had an opinion about hydrangeas. In 1945 I was five years old and living with my parents, and my two younger brothers, in the Bronx. When the weekend weather was fine my parents often took all of us on a stroll through the neighborhood. We lived in an apartment building surrounded by cement, but there were many houses on our street that had tiny front yards that often showed off one or two hydrangeas with fat balls of blue flowers. I took against those blue hydrangea blossoms, but I can give you no reason for my dislike.
I don’t recall many occasions when hydrangeas played any part in my life after that until 1971 when I moved to Greenfield. Three straggly white hydrangeas held up their weary heads in front of my new front porch. I immediately pulled them out.
In subsequent wanderings, to Maine and Manhattan I began to feel more friendly towards hydrangeas. There was no more reason for my growing affection than there had been for my disaffection. We moved to Heath in 1979 and I began to plant gardens. Most of my attention and energy went to vegetables and what was to become our Rose Walk. Not a hydrangea in site. Years passed.
One day, I was looking at the plants at a small nursery (soon to be the New England Wildflower Nasami Farm) in Whately owned by Bob and Nancy August. Mrs. August was minding the plants that day. I wandered and kept coming back to a small young hydrangea with airy white blossoms named Mothlight. These blossoms were nothing like heavy mopheads. I considered it for quite a long time, and finally decided to buy. As Mrs. August and I were chatting, she commented on my odd limping gait and suggested that I do something about my hip. That was a bit of a wake up call. And I did do something about my hip. I got a new one. She made me realize I didn’t really have to hobble about any more. I was grateful to her for her advice and for the Mothlight.
The Mothlight hydrangea grew very large in Heath which surprised me, but the white blossoms retained their delicate airy-ness. I later added a Limelight hydrangea which has pale chartreuse blossoms, and Pinky Winky which begins white and turns pink over the season. I also planted the white flowered native oak leaf hydrangea. It was my intention to have these three large shrubs form a kind of long flowering hedge at the eastern edge of my lawn. There it got morning shade and plenty of sun the rest of the day.
When we left Heath I realized that hydrangeas would be perfect for the low maintenance garden I was planning in Greenfield. The land next to my neighbor’s driveway is about the driest spot on our property. Hydrangeas, like roses, do not like ‘wet feet.’ I chose Limelight once again, and I also chose Angel’s Blush which is white but becomes rosy in the fall. Firelight was my final choice which becomes a dark pinky-red in the fall.
Except for the native oak leaf hydrangea, all the hydrangeas I’ve ever planted are paniculatas. This was really by chance, but I chose them because they are hardy and very dependable. They can all become quite tall and have conical flowers. Paniculatas and H. arborescens like Annabelle bloom on new wood, which means they should be pruned in the late winter or very early spring. Since they bloom on new wood, it won’t matter to them if the winter has been harsh causing winterkill. Prune them back and the new growth will provide new flowers.
Annabelle has been a popular hydrangea. It is native to North America and very dependable. It will grow about three to five feet tall with a similar spread and the large white flowers resemble mopheads. When one of my young relatives married in August a few years ago the wedding was held at an estate where ranks of Annabelles blossomed on a severely terraced hill. Interspersed with the hydrangeas were clumps of airy white obedient plant. It was an elegant arrangement, and certainly perfect for a wedding celebration.
The big blue hydrangea blossoms I found so distasteful in my childhood were mopheads. Perhaps I intuitively knew that they were trouble. Hydrangea macrophylla blooms on old wood which means if there is a bad winter the buds will be killed and there will be no bloom. They can then be pruned but there will be no flowers for another year when the new growth counts as old wood. If there is winterkill there is no help except pruning out deadwood and cultivating patience. For regular maintenance you can prune out a few branches each year which will encourage a steady renewal.
I love H. quercifolia, the climbing hydrangea. They can climb trees, or walls and are beautiful and really stunning. They take a while to get going, but the patience it takes is worth it.
All hydrangeas like sun but can take some shade. They need regular watering, but definitely do not like waterlogged soil.
There is a hydrangea for every garden, in every color and size, including small varieties that can be grown in a container. What’s your pleasure?
Between the Rows July 28, 2018