The latest is not usually the greatest hydrangea

By 
Erin Schanen

Americans are obsessed with hydrangeas.

That’s not to say that gardeners in other countries don’t like them, but nowhere else in the world is the market flooded with several dozens of new hydrangea varieties every year. And you’d be hard pressed to find gardeners with an apparent will to grow nearly all of them anywhere but here.

They come in many shapes, sizes and colors and none of that seems to matter to U.S. gardeners. If it’s a hydrangea, it must be fabulous.

But, of course, they aren’t all fabulous, and certainly not when there seems to be a race among plant companies to release the next hot hydrangea.

Of the top 10 best-selling shrubs sold by Proven Winners Colorchoice Shrubs, one of the biggest shrub suppliers in the U.S., six are hydrangeas. At a horticulture show in Ohio earlier this week, where plant companies come up with slick marketing campaigns for their new plant releases, hydrangeas received the red carpet treatment more than almost any other plant.

Having a lot of options to choose from isn’t the worst thing for gardeners, and I can personally attest to there being a certain amount of fun in the hunt for the holy grail of hydrangeas.

If you ask Midwest gardeners what their perfect hydrangea would be, my guess is that most would describe something akin to the heaping mound of flowers you find on Nantucket Island that are colored a blue so perfect it’s often called “hydrangea blue.”

Forgive me for breaking your gardening heart now, but if you live in this newspaper’s coverage area, you can’t have those hydrangeas. Those big, beautiful flowers come from Hydrangea macrophylla, also known as big-leaf hydrangea, which isn’t hardy enough to grow here.

And that perfect blue comes from acidic soil. Our soil tends to be on the alkaline side, which results in pink flowers, and while a blue color can be achieved by amending the soil pH, it rarely results in “hydrangea blue.”

Wisconsin gardeners will have much better luck with panicle hydrangeas that form their buds in spring but only flower in white to chartreuse colors that age to pink in some cases.

If you want those big, blousy blossoms, Hydrangea arborescens (smooth hydrangea) grows very well here, but again you’re stuck with white or pink flowers.

I’ve grown a lot of hydrangeas and I can attest that the latest is rarely the greatest.‘Haas Halo,’ for instance, is a lacecap version of H. arborescens with excellent form and the benefit of being beloved by pollinators. You’ll probably have a hard time finding it at a garden center (I ordered mine online), but it’s in the gardens of longtime hydrangea enthusiasts.

If hunting down less popular hydrangeas sounds like a lot of work, hang in there. Hydrangea breeders know that we want a reliably hardy, blue mophead hydrangea that grows here, and odds are they’ll figure it out at some point.

Or, you can leave those hydrangeas to Nantucket and embrace the great, but lesser known hydrangeas that grow well here and stop chasing the latest and greatest.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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