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 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.


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

Blue and white bouquet

Why is it that I wake up on a Saturday morning even earlier than I do when I have to get up for the work week? Rather than thrash around under the covers trying to get back to sleep, I decided not to fight it, and went out int to garden. Still in my PJ’s, and with a light dousing of mosquito repellant, I shuffled outside with kitchen shears looking for puffy candidates. I have about 15 different hydrangea shrubs growing in my yard. Many still not mature enough to use for cuttings (I want them to grow, grow!) But, I singled out a few blooms to harvest and added some lemon balm and my favorite wildflower for arrangements, Pearly Everlasting, as accents.

So here’s a device portrait of my morning labor on the kitchen counter! Gardens are meant to bring indoors!

A bouquet of hydrangeas
Five different varieties here, of hydrangeas, with some lemon balm for trailers and some white pearly everlasting wildflowers for contrast

 

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Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas were my mother’s favorite flower. Neither my mother or father were into gardening. My father loved to cut grass, lawns were his thing, and he enjoyed spreading Scott’s Turf Builder on our lawn. But shrubs, trees or flowers? Forget about it. I don’t have any memories of my mother gardening, save for the memory of her watering hydrangea bushes we inherited with a summer home my parents bought in Brigantine, in the 1960s. That was her first introduction to the flower/shrub, and outside in her madras plaid shorts and summer top, she would be outside with a hose, watering them frequently. She loved the showy puffballs, which I remember being blue. One of our neighbors was an elderly couple, who also had quite a few hydrangea shrubs, and mom learned about their care from them. One day, I saw my mom putting pennies in the soil. She had heard that the copper in the pennies would help turn the hydrangea blooms pink. I recall my mother also creating cuttings through water. I would watch as little tiny white roots would appear in the glass. I don’t recall if any of them actually took.

My mother passed away in March, 2001, days before I moved to our new home in Lewes. When she died, our family ordered many hot house hydrangeas that were readily available for the Easter market. They looked beautiful in the church and I know she would have been pleased. I took one home and planted it in my side yard, one of the first landscape plants of our newly built home. It had already been forced to bloom, so I didn’t have any expectation for it that year. The next year, the shrub grew rapidly, producing many of its large, heart-shaped leaves. But no blooms. I had gotten a job with Cooperative Extension and asked our horticulture agent why it wasn’t blooming. “If it was a hot house plant, it may never bloom,” he answered. “Sometimes, they won’t.”

I resigned myself to a very healthy and rapidly growing leafy shrub. To satisfy my urge to see some hydrangea blooms, I bought other macrophyllas – Nikiko Blue – was described by many to be the most intense – actually produced a very light, pale blue in my garden soil. By our third summer, I was delighted to see that “mom’s hydrangea” – the funeral plant – had set many buds and in this case, the third time was the charm. What had been pink in the church had produced gorgeous deep violet blue mopheads. I was thrilled.

Since then, I have added at least one or two hydrangea plants a year, in honor and in memory of my mother. I ordered a variety of lacecaps from Wayside Gardens, and I can’t remember what variety they are! I fell in love with Oakleaf hydrangeas and now have two shrubs of a slightly different variety. I have grown to really love lacecaps, and have several varieties. Last year, I purchased my first “Limelight” and I have yet to take photos of it. It has leafed out nicely, enduring its first winter in our yard. I look forward to seeing it.

In 2010, we decided to line a short, southern-facing fence with a row of white hydrangeas. I think I actually had in mind the “Annabelles” the big showy mopheads, but the tags said they were just the white macrophyllas. Well! We got a surprise! Three of the row produced the advertised white macrophylla balls. One turned out pink-white-yellow (Very old fashioned looking) and two on the end turned out to be lacecaps, producing slightly different colors.

The gallery below are some of my earlier photographs. My goal is to have clusters of hydrangeas everywhere! Once I get my husband to agree to a garden path trellis/arch, I hope to get a climbing variety!