In Delaware, hydrangeas bloom in June, but I always think of hydrangeas in May because of Mother’s Day.
My mother did not have a green thumb. I never saw mom kneeling and weeding in a garden. I only recall a few occasions with fresh-cut flowers in a vase on a table or counter. Mom went for plastic, and later in the 1970s and 1980s, the silk arrangements that were oh so fashionable and given to her as gifts throughout the years, accumulated in our home as decor accents. Slightly faded fabric petals of pink, yellow and blue held their faux bloom (and quite a bit of dust if truth be told) until her death in 2001.
Mom had one saving grace with gardening. She knew how to hold and point a hose. As luck would have it, a summer cottage my parents bought in the 1960s in Brigantine, New Jersey came framed in hydrangea macrophyllas. Big, blue cooling balls would erupt along the sides of our modest white, one- story beach house and my mother succeeded in never killing them. In her mind, that made her a gardener. In the Brigantine summers, we had hamburgers, hot dogs and fresh hydrangeas on the table.
Vivid memories of her in a button down sleeveless shirt, madras plaid pedal pushers and rubber flip flops, watering hydrangeas, are etched in my mind as a standard, summer experience. Holding a green hose mom slowly made her way around the perimeter of the square cottage unloading healthy gulps of water upon the leaves. I watched her push pennies into the soil with her fingers.
“They make the flowers turn blue,” she said of the practice I have since learned is an old wives’ tale.
Her one horticulture knack was being able to propagate the leaves in water. In the summer we’d have a few plastic cups filled halfway with water and some hydrangea leaves sprouting tiny and tender white roots. Mom would give these starters away. I took her simple horticulture practice, trying to run with it, but I did not inherit this particular talent. Though I try, I can only get so far with this technique.
When mom died in March, 2001, we adorned the church altar with her favorite flower. The hot house hydrangeas, ready for the Easter market, were big and showy and powerfully pink. They surrounded her casket as she recieved the priest’s blessings. I took one of these funeral bouquets home with me and I planted it in a new house we were building and where I thought it would thrive. I hoped some of the Holy Water, which had landed on the leaves, might give the shrub a splash of good luck.
We had planned on mom living with us and had had a room ready for her. She never got to move in let alone see the house. Having that hydrangea grow symbolized she would be near.
The pink blooms faded away later that spring and did not return. The next year the plant grew to shrub size, but would not bloom.
That summer at work, I asked the horticultre Extension agent what was wrong.
“It might not ever bloom,” he said, “since it was raised in a hot house for the Easter market. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Another summer went by and it grew big and luscious and green. But no blooms!
I didn’t push any pennies in the soil to help it along. By then I knew it was all about aluminum and pH and all that kind of stuff. I planted other hydrangeas, one, Nikko Blue, a very old fashioned, powder blue, thrived on the other side of the house. It grew like bonkers. I kept adding different varieties – some oakleafs and lacecaps and limelights all did well. One way or another I was determined that some type of hydrangeas would grow on my property! These other hydrangeas showed off, pushing forth in panicles, round puff balls and dainty lacecaps. All except mom’s funeral hydrangea.
Geesh. Had I planted “mom’s” hydrangeas in the wrong spot?
My answer arrived in the third year, when mom’s gardening spirit and inspiration shouted in profuse young limes and teenage blues! Here’s the photo of mom’s original pink funeral flowers on its first rebloom, three years later.
Botanically speaking, Mother’s Day always arrives a month late in my house. Mom inspired my love of hydrangeas and all the hydrangeas varieties I’ve planted since. Through them, memories of her follow me both inside, in vases and jars, and outside as far as my hose will stretch. Their blooms remind me of those Sixties’ summers in Brigantine where I spent June, July and August around bumblebees, spigots and cool water from a green hose that splashed on crunchy green leaves and a little girl’s toes. Happy Mother’s Day Urusla Walsh Dorsey!
Photo credit: Michele Walfred