Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hydrangeas in the Garden

A type of plant I've come to appreciate in the last few years is hydrangea. I've always had sentimental fondness for the big blue, shade-loving hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) I remember from my mother's garden long ago, and this was what I've always thought of when someone mentioned hydrangeas. 
Hydrangea macrophylla (not from my garden)
But I've never liked them enough to plant a hydrangea in my own garden until recently. For one thing, I always considered them unattractive in the winter, just a bunch of bare sticks that couldn't be cut down without sacrificing the bloom. When Jack and I lived in Arlington, Virginia, our townhouse was directly across a grassy area from a neighbor who had a hydrangea planted in front of his house. We were treated to the view of his bare shrub all winter.

However, since joining the Memphis Area Master Gardeners, I've become more appreciative of the many varieties of hydrangea available, including the more sun-tolerant varieties. (I also worked one spring at The Dabney Nursery, where I learned a lot about hydrangeas from their knowledgeable staff and well-stocked nursery inventory.) When Jack and I moved into our house in 2011, there were no hydrangeas among the existing plants on our property, but over the last five years, we've added (and discovered) a number of hydrangeas in our garden.

The summer after we moved in, we discovered what appeared to be hydrangea seedlings in two areas of the garden where azaleas were planted. The gardens had been allowed to "go natural" by the previous owners and there was a fairly deep layer of fallen leaves in these areas. Jack and I prefer a more "tended" look and we removed the thick leaf accumulation.  Later, while weeding, we came across a little plant that was definitely "something" (a codeword that means "I don't know what this is, but I don't think it is a weed"), and so we let it grow.  This happened in two garden areas where leaves had been allowed to accumulate, so we ended up with two of these mystery plants. 

The next year, I became fairly sure that the plants were tiny hydrangeas that, I suppose, had sprouted from seeds carried by the wind from some neighbor's plant and had found a hospitable place to sprout in the accumulated leaves. At this point, I moved the little plants to a different location to wait, hopefully, for them to develop into hydrangeas. The next year, I was positive that they were some sort of hydrangeas, but I didn't know what kind. 

 Fast forward four springs, and now we have numerous hydrangeas in our garden. The two "found" ones have grown very well and bloomed this year for the first time. Both are macrophylla (bigleaf) hydrangea, one a pink mophead and the other a blue lacecap.
Hydrangea macrophylla

The pink mophead grew to a nice little shrub this year. I especially like the dark, substanital, shiny green leaves on this variety. We also are really lucky in terms of the bloom, which is extremely attractive. Here is a closer look at the bloom. It is so lovely that I might have sought out this one to purchase. It only had a few blooms this year, but I'm assuming that's normal for a young plant.

Hydrangea macrophylla normalis

The other "found" hydrangea turned out to be a lacecap. Still in the macrophylla category of hydrangea, the leaves on the lacecap look similar to its "found" mophead companion, but the bloom is very different. Tiny blue flowers are surrounded by larger white flowers. The blooms were sparse this year but I'm hopeful for next year (the gardeners refrain: "next year will be better").

I purchased one bigleaf hydrangea because I was drawn to its bright, yellow-green foliage. I believe the cultivar name is 'Lemon Daddy' but I'm not sure. I planted it to brighten up a very shady area and was concerned that its yellow color would not persist through the summer. It has taken a few years to get established (the cold weather we had a few winters ago froze it to the ground), but the color of the foliage has held up nicely. This is the first year we've gotten a bloom, an attractive pale pink flower.
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey'

A few years ago, we also purchased several oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) that have done quite well. One is a large cultivar called 'Alice,'  shown below.
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Alice'

We bought two Alices and used one to shield a small utility building. That one has had a lot of black spot this year. Hopefully, it is due to the wet spring we had and won't be a continuing problem ("next year will be better").

Another oakleaf, 'Gatsby Moon' is similar to Alice, but it's bloom clusters are much denser.
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Gatsby Moon'

Gatsby Moon
Here's a closer look at that dense flower. As you can see from the picture above, the flowers completely weigh down the plant, so much so that I ended up cutting the blossoms to enjoy in a vase. As the plant matures, the stems should harden up enough to support these beautiful flowers.

Three years ago, we also purchased our first sun-tolerant variety of hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata 'Phantom'. Like its more well-known cousin 'Limelight,' Phantom makes a large shrub and is covered with white blooms. Phantom is suppose to have some of the largest blooms of any of the panicle hyrdrangeas. 

Hydrangea paniculata 'Phantom'
Our Phantom has not been pruned in the three years we have had it and it looks a bit unruly.  It has reached the maximum height I'd like it to get, and I plan to prune it this winter. Unlike some of the hydrangea species, paniculatas bloom on new, as well as old, growth so there is no risk that the bloom will be ruined by a late winter or early spring pruning. In fact, it may be that pruning produces a more showy bloom. Notice the difference between the size and density of the bloom on the old growth at the bottom versus the new growth at the top. Thankfully, it appears that the stems are able to support the weight of the huge blooms. 

The final type of hydrangea I want to talk about is the first hydrangea I purchased for our garden. I loved the look of this one so much that I bought three plants. It's a macrophylla but has a very different look. Here is what it looked like when I bought it.
Hydrangea macrophylla variegata
(not the one in my garden)

But that picture is not of the plant in our garden. Here's the best-looking of our three plants, after being in the garden for five years. All three plants steadily declined each year after I planted them, and then there was that cold winter that froze them back to the ground. 

Someone told me that these variegated hydrangeas are finicky, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that they are not planted in ideal conditions--far from it. This is a dry, shady area that is densely planted, and I have not provided either supplemental water or added nutrition on a regular basis. But since they are showing some promise, I think I'll start giving them some extra help and see what happens. I really do love the look of this hydrangea. Even when it is not in bloom, it adds a lot to the garden.

As a novice hydrangea grower, I've not found them to be especially difficult (with the possible exception of the variegated type), but you need to know a few basics about the care of the particular species you want to grow. More about that in a future post.

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