Mom and her hydrangeas

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 recall only 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 shrubs. 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 tried to duplicate her success, 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 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 did 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, which 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 a photo of mom’s original pink funeral flowers on its first rebloom, three years later.

Mom’s macrophylla is now the showiest hydrangeas on our property. This photo, the blooms are young. As they age they turn the most beautiful deep, purply blue.

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!

Mom and I in Wilmington, Delaware. I don’t have any photos of her in New Jersey, but this was definitely her gardening (or hose watering ) outfit!
I like to bring my hydrangeas inside to enjoy!

Photo credit: Michele Walfred

2021 Update: Since writing this essay, the “mom’s hydrangea” planted along the east side of the house seemed vulnerable as it matured. In its location, without any taller trees to shade it, it received full sun until at least 1 p.m. Our summers began getting hotter. Because this wasn’t bred as a landscape cultivar, it doesn’t have the known characteristics that allow it to endure a late spring cold spell, or tolerate early June temperatures in the mid 90s as it was in 2021. In mid May I counted hundreds of blossoms on this shrub — it looked so promising! But the steamy first week of June fried the new blossoms to a crisp. It looked like a chocolate chip cookie bush, but not a very appetizing one.

So I decided to dig up this 20 year old shrub, or rather, get my husband to do the shovel work. It was easier than we thought — hydrangeas are not that deep rooted. When we pulled it up, a piece with roots broke off, and we also noticed that a lower branch had rooted itself — propagation by layering — so we had three pieces of this shrub. Three chances for a new location. I hoped that at least one would take.

We prepared a very large hole in a deeply shady area of our property — and where other macrophyllas and oakleafs do well. Inside the hole we backfilled with good garden soil and homemade compost. We did something similar with the smaller piece and the layering section. By fall it looked good and dead. By March I hadn’t seen any sign of life.

In mid April 2022, I saw the first green sprouts at the base. All three transplants are showing healthy growth and are going to survive!

This is the main section that we dug up. I took this photo on June 10, 2022

The older canes don’t appear to have any life to them. They easily snap off. But I am going to leave them just in case. The new growth is quite healthy and lush. I am thrilled. This got a light treatment of Holly Tone in mid March, something I do with all my hydrangeas. Later this summer, I will take out the remaining canes and give it another light fertilization. It gets regular water and follow up visits on its progress.

All I have to do now is be patient. Macrophyllas set their flower buds for next year around late July into August. This shrub may need an additional recovery year to acclimate to its new home. It may adhere to the sleep, creep then leap – a three year waiting period before it blooms again. It was a drastic move but one that was necessary with our changing climate.

Once it does bloom again, it should be spectacular! Now that it receives less sun, and is further away from our house, I will give this additional winter protection and be ready to cover it should a late spring cold spell come our way.

In it’s original spot, I selected and planted a ZinFin Doll panicle hydrangea, which is bred to do well in the sun and heat, and whose white panicle blossoms age to a reportedly stunning red. I see several flower buds and can’t wait until its first bloom.

4 thoughts on “Mom and her hydrangeas

  1. What a beautiful memory, Michele! Your Mom is with you always, and no doubt she’d enjoy your beautiful backyard plantings that I envy on your Instagram posts. Happy Mother’s Day! p.s. Do you still go to Brigantine? We have a place there-North Beach condos on the north end of the island where the haunted house used to be

    1. Thank you Anne! No, we don’t go there anymore. Not since I was a child. We lived on 5th South. I remember the haunted house.

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