Floppy or not, hydrangeas are treasured in the garden


As it approached, last week’s storm, which failed to produce the much-needed rain or the damaging winds that were forecast, I was outside with a headlamp ferociously pounding wood stakes in the ground to shore up my Hydrangea arborescens. At one point, I looked longingly over at the Hydrangea paniculata Limelight, which stands much taller but needed no such mollycoddling, and wondered why in the world I grow a plant that requires such treatment.

To be fair, these hydrangeas are having a tough year. Faced with little water during their biggest growth period, they’ve developed floppier-than-usual stems that struggle to carry their enormous ball-shaped flowers. I feared that heavy rain and strong wind might lay them over permanently. So I set about staking them upright in a purely functional and not-at-all attractive manner.

Hydrangeas are one shrub I couldn’t live without, and I have more than 30 in the yard. But some are certainly better than others, and because there are so many types out there, it can be confusing to choose the right one.

Hydrangea macrophylla (big leaf hydrangea) is probably closest to what most people imagine a hydrangea to be. They have flowers that are somewhere between pink and blue, depending on the soil acidity. They bloom on last year’s growth, so if you prune them in spring or a hard winter freezes the flower buds, they will only bloom sporadically. Endless Summer was one of the first reblooming varieties to be widely available, but because the buds are so prone to freezing here it became known as Endless Bummer.

Hydrangea arborescens (smooth hydrangea) gets white or pink flowers (although lace cap varieties are also available and perhaps even more lovely) and bloom on new growth, so you can cut all the way back in fall or spring and have flowers by July. Their main disadvantage is the aforementioned flopping issue.

Hydrangea paniculata (panicle hydrangea) has cone-shaped flowers that form on new growth, but they are super sturdy after a couple years in the ground. Limelight and Bobo, a well-mannered variety that stays under 3 feet, are both exceptional, but many new varieties on the market brag of better pink color in flowers as they age and other advantages.

I’ve become quite enamored with Hydrangea serrata (mountain hydrangea) recently. It blooms on old wood (and some also bloom on new wood), but it has proven bud-hardy during our winters. And it has the lovely pink to blue colors of persnickety H. macrophylla. There are others too — Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea) is stunning when it’s happy and offers spectacular fall color, and Hydrangea petiolaris (climbing hydrangea) is a show-stopper for shadier spots, although it can be extremely vigorous so careful siting and a healthy dose of patience are required.

With all those options you’d think I would shovel prune anything that required late-night emergency staking. But I couldn’t bring myself to get rid ‘Annabelle’ and the rest. Floppy or not, they are part of my hydrangea family.




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