Garden: Hydrangea Love
The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.
Bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla)
I really do love hydrangeas! And it seems so does everyone else. When I meet with clients to discuss their landscapes and ask what plants they would like to see in their gardens, invariably the answer includes hydrangea. They seem to evoke sentimental memories of summers in grandma’s garden or vacations at the shore. In our area there are six species that are most commonly grown and available in nurseries. Within those species there are a dizzying array of varieties with different characteristics and more introduced every year by professional growers. It can be confusing.
My personal favorites are the many varieties of Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata). Commonly called “Pee Gees,” these are by far the easiest and most rewarding. They bloom reliably every year because they set bud in early summer rather than early spring when they would be vulnerable to late frosts. Starting out white or pale green, they mature to a beautiful pink, rose or burgundy color. The blooms make excellent dried flowers for indoor arrangements.
You will be familiar with the old-fashioned ‘Grandiflora’ hydrangea often seen as a single-trunked tree form and very common in many old cemeteries in this region. But there are also lots of newer varieties that I use consistently in my designs, including ‘Limelight,’ ‘Unique,’ and ‘Tardiva’. ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Fire and Ice’ start blooming earlier than many and keep going into the fall. ‘Little Lamb,’ ‘Little Lime’ and ‘Bobo’ are all compact varieties that pair well with perennials in mixed beds and borders. I am truly enamored with ’Great Star.’ It bears rounded clusters of lacecap flowers that open to cream-colored, wavy, star-shaped florets that can be up to four inches across. The flowers have a certain grace and are incredibly fragrant.
Bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla) is arguably the most sought-after species with their big balls of florets in blue, pink, purple or white, with shiny green leaves. Unfortunately, these beauties do not bloom well in our zone, much to the disappointment of their many fans. In 2004, the ‘Endless Summer’ variety was introduced to the country with the promise that they would bloom all summer even here. Northern gardeners were ecstatic. I must have installed a hundred of them for my clients (and in my own garden). Sadly, they did not live up to the hype and I have gradually removed almost all of them over the last 10 years.
Top: Great Star. Bottom: Annabelle.
Growers have been introducing “new and improved” versions in the “ever-blooming” category. I continue to experiment because the enthusiasm is always there, but most clients are not satisfied with a big bush of gorgeous leaves that bless us with only one or two blooms by October. For me, the jury is still out on a truly reliable blooming Bigleaf hydrangea.
Much more gratifying for Northern gardeners (even into Zone 3) is Smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens). This species is an American native, rather than an Asian import, and is easy to grow. Featuring orb-like clusters of white or green flowers, some can be as large as volleyballs. ‘Annabelle’ is probably the most commonly available classic white Smooth hydrangea but new varieties that sport mauve-pink flowers have become available recently. ‘Invincibelle Spirit II’ is one that has been successful for me. They bloom on new wood every season so can be pruned back in the fall to 8-10 inches, avoiding the unattractive skeleton of stems that remain after frost and the leaves drop.
Additional beautiful species in this genus that grow well here are Climbing hydrangea (H. anomala), Mountain hydrangea (H. serrata) and Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia). As you dream and plan for your gardens for the coming season, include hydrangeas on your list. As you can tell, I’m quite smitten with these gorgeous, low-maintenance flowering shrubs and want everyone else to plant them and love them too!