Mom’s Favorite Flower
article by P. Allen Smith
Nothing is more comforting to me than a border full of blooming hydrangeas on a warm summer day. My mother had a bank of cool blue hydrangeas in the dappled shade beside her home when I was a child. I was amazed at the giant blooms that were as big as my head, and their rich, vibrant hue was almost other worldly.
Hydrangeas are a great addition to any garden. They bring a lush fullness with rich, dense foliage and beautiful blooms that, depending on the species and variety, can last from summer through fall. They are easy to grow and can produce a multitude of colors ranging from crisp blue, to icy white, vibrant pink, lavender and hot pink. They provide an excellent backdrop to any perennial bed.
To get the most out of your hydrangeas, they’ll need nutrient-rich, well-drained soil. If you need to, amend your soil with compost to provide a strong base for your hydrangeas. Choose a spot that gets full sun in the mornings and some afternoon shade. Many hydrangeas will still bloom in partial shade, but they need some sun if you want the nice, big showy blooms they are known for.
Before you start planting, it’s important to decide which kind of hydrangea you want to introduce into your garden. There are many different types of this classic flowering shrub that can be grouped into three main categories: old-fashioned bigleaf, oakleaf and peegee. They are all beautiful, but produce different types of flowers and need slightly different care, so read your garden label carefully before making your choice.
Bigleaf, or Hydrangea macrophylla, are the most popular by far. These include the classic mophead with large round blooms, as well as lacecaps with gorgeous clusters of lacy flowers. Both of these types of bigleaf hydrangeas can produce beautiful shades of blue and pink flowers. Bigleaf hydrangeas do best in zones 5-9 and bloom on old wood, so do not over prune them and protect their branches in the winter. If needed, you can shape them or prune dead branches back immediately after flowering is finished. Control the color of these bold blooms by adjusting the pH of your soil. Add aluminum sulfate to the soil to encourage a blue flower color or lime to make the blooms pink.
Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifoli, is known for its long lasting flower power and its gorgeous oak leaf shaped foliage that changes to shades of purple, orange and bronze in the autumn. White flowers emerge on these shrubs in clusters in the summer, and fade to a lovely pinkish-brown toward the end of fall. These large hydrangeas are hardy in zones 5-9 and can reach heights and widths of up to 6 feet. Very little pruning is needed since growth emerges on old wood—simply cut back any branches that suffered damage in the winter.
Peegee Hydrangeas, or Hydrangea paniculata, are not nearly as common as bigleaf and oakleaf, but they are just as beautiful. This unusual shrub thrives in zones 3-8, and is sometimes referred to as a “hydrangea tree” because of its massive height and ability to be trained into a single trunk shape. These shrubs can reach heights of up to 25 feet and flower a bit later than most hydrangeas. Look for large white panicles containing tons of white sepals to emerge in mid-summer. These lovely flower heads will fade to pink in the fall for added interest in your landscape. Blooms emerge on new wood, so wait to prune until early spring.
There are so many lovely hydrangea varieties on the market today, it’s hard to choose which should make its home in your garden. If you are still having trouble narrowing it down, here are a few of my favorites from each hydrangea category. Whichever choice you make—the dense, bold color of a bigleaf mophead, the romantic drooping panicles of a peegee or the bright white exploding blooms of the oakleaf—you simply can’t go wrong when you add hydrangeas to your landscape!