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There is no other type of plant in our nursery that sparks a greater degree of fascination than Hydrangeas. Ever since “Queen Martha Stewart” (pre-orange jump suit) proclaimed the boundless merit of Hydrangeas from atop her media empire soapbox, the American gardening public has been all too eager to “get their collective Hydrangea on!” Along with this wide spread appeal there is also abundant confusion for the selection and care of this widely diversified and ever-growing plant family. Lets learn a bit more about this family of plants and help de-mystify Queen Martha’s favorite flower.
The primary source of confusion over Hydrangeas originates in the several diverse branches of the Hydrangea family tree. Each species of Hydrangea has particular traits that vary the selection, care and planting locations of these individuals. Knowing more about Hydrangea families (species) and jargon associated with these plants will put you well on the way to a higher gardening consciousness. (And maybe fewer questions in the nursery!)
Hydrangea anomala petiolaris is what is commonly referred to as Climbing Hydrangea. This woody creeper prefers partial shade but will grow in full sun if adequate moisture is available. Climbing Hydrangea may be slow to start but can be aggressive and very large in time overpowering lightweight arbors or trellises. The vines cling to brick and stone providing a solution for large, stark wall spaces and also can be an attractive, shade-loving groundcover. Plants don’t bloom prolifically until maturity and are not as showy as other Hydrangeas. Look for the selection ‘Mirranda’ which has yellow variegation to the foliage and a less aggressive growth rate that may be preferred for smaller garden spaces.
Hydrangea arborescens or smooth Hydrangea is a native species common from Delaware to the Florida panhandle found in moist, woodland environments. The selection ‘Annabelle’ has been the most common smooth Hydrangea utilized in landscapes. The round, snow-ball shaped flowers appear white in July, may tinge pink with cooler weather and then fade to light green in august. These Hydrangeas bloom well in shadier locations and grow well in sun as long as moisture is available. Another beneficial feature is that this plant blooms on new wood or growth that has emerged during the current season. Left alone ‘Annabelle’ can grow to 6’ tall or more but cutting them back in early spring easily controls their eventual height. Look for the new selection of pink flowering, smooth Hydrangea ‘Invincible Spirit’. A smaller stature and pretty pink flowers make this new selection a great option for a wide range of landscape situations.
Hydrangea macrophylla is the most popular species of Hydrangea. Commonly referred to as Big Leaf Hydrangea, there are dozens of varieties to choose from all with different colors, growth habits and flower styles. Mophead flowers are the large, dome shaped flowers most commonly sought after while Lacecap Hydrangeas are large, flat flowers with open florets around the rim and small bud-like flowers in the center. Some varieties bloom on old wood and others on new. Plants that bloom on old wood are less likely to provide consistent blooming. There are many factors that can prevent these Hydrangeas from blooming. Inadequate sunlight, pruning the old canes back too far, frozen buds in spring, deer browse, extra cold and/or windy winter weather and in some cases just a bummer plant. Many of the new Hydrangea introductions feature blooms from new growth that negates many of these factors and, in some cases, offer spectacular color combinations. Finally the question of what makes Hydrangeas turn blue. First, blue varieties have the ability to turn blue while other colored varieties do not. The blue is from aluminum that is made available to the plant from the soil. Some parts of the world have aluminum naturally occurring in native soils but we do not in this area. Plants can only absorb aluminum when the pH of your garden soil is low. (5.2-5.5) Soil pH, simply explained, is a measure of the electrical conductivity of soils. Different plants absorb nutrients under different electrical currents so adjusting pH allows plants to utilize available nutrient sources. Aluminum sulfate is the most common amendment used to offer aluminum and lower soil pH and should be applied early in the growing season.
Hydrangea paniculata is commonly referred to as Pee Gee Hydrangea. The large summer flowers are cone shaped and lend themselves to drying and flower arranging. These shrubby Hydrangeas prefer at least a half-day of sun but are widely adaptable. The flowers first appear white and then fade to pink that deepens in tone with cooler night temperatures. There are many varieties that range in flower shape, size and color as well as plant height. Plants bloom freely allowing easy height control with an early spring pruning. Favorite varieties include ‘Limelight’, ‘Pinky Winky’ and ‘Quickfire’.
Hydrangea quercifolia is more often referred to as Oak Leaf Hydrangea. While less prolific blooming than the similar paniculata, quercifolia offers many distinct advantages. First they tolerate more shady conditions growing in an interesting, asymmetrical form. Large, silvery green leaves and peeling bark provide textural interest and in the fall the maroon foliage becomes the highlight of this plant’s features. New varieties like ‘Snow Queen’ offer more prolific blooming while ‘Sikes Dwarf’ and ‘Applause’ will appeal for smaller garden spaces.
Finally Hydrangea serrata is a species native to Korea that many feel is a subspecies of macrophylla sharing most all their characteristics. Most common varieties available include ‘Preziosa’ that has maroon fall foliage and ‘Blue Billows’ which is an excellent lacecap variety.
Sorry for the long-winded bluster but this information is something I have wanted to get out to you for a long time. There are so many great Hydrangeas available but they do require a bit of knowledge to appropriately place in the landscape and maintain properly. I hope this helps sort things out and helps you “get your Hydrangea on!”
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!