My Hydrangea Obsession

I’ve written about why I became interested in growing hydrangeas and I wonder now if it has gotten a little out of hand! Yesterday, I walked my three-quarter acre property and tallied up my hydrangea collection. One hundred and three (2022) and counting! Here’s the list!

4-Little Limelight – local nursery

3-Macrophyllas lacecap 2 blues, 1 purple

1-Purple lacecap from above, successful layering

1-Forever and Everyone “Peppermint” 2011 a rebloomers

5-Schnee balls macrophylla, (white blooms, ruffled blossoms) 2011

1-Schnee ball successful layering and blooming 2021 15

1-Limelight panicle

1-Mom’s hydrangea (funeral bouquet 2001)

1-Oak-leaf  (2004)

4-Mariesii variegated

1-Little Quick Fire Proven Winners (2016) local nursery

1-Oakleaf Syke’s Dwarf

3-Blue Billows Mountain Hydrangea – original parents Wayside Garden

2-Endless Summer (ES) Let’s Dance Blue Jangles (2019)

5-Macrophyllas propagated from cuttings (2018)

1-Walmart rescue (purple) (2018) 35

1-Gift macrophylla propagation (2019)

1-Vanilla strawberry (2017)

3- Proven Winners Tuff Stuff Ah ha, double bloomer (2019)

1-Annabelle (2015) MG Plant Sale

3-Macrophyllas unknown variety, traditional

2-Everlasting Revolution. Slow growing. Has a very tight, pagoda shaped bloom.

8-Blue billows mountain by propagation from original parents

1-hydrangea serrata kiyosumi turns all kinds of colors. Small dainty lacecaps  55

1-Mountain lacecap Greywood – Wayside Gardens (2002)

1-Oak-leaf Snow Queen (2017)

1-Mystery layering

1-Pinky Winky (2018) Local nursery

1-Nikko Blue (2002) 60

2-Incrediball h.arborescens

2-Pistachio, Wayside Gardens

2-City Line Rio (transplanted from sun to shade in 2018. Currently growing but not blooming).

1-Merritt’s Supreme (2017)

2-Oak-leaf “Snowflake” double bloomer (in transit 2019)

1-Summer crush (2020) purchased at Lowes post season. Bloomed very pink in 2021. 70

1- “Alice” Oakleafs Hydrangea. Purchased at Willey’s Farm, Townsend, Del. post season in 2020. Looking forward to blooms in 2021.

1-Bloomstruck macrophylla

1-Strawberry Sundae (2020)

1-Bobo panicle hydrangea (2020)

1-Gatsby Star Oakleaf hydrangea (2021) Proven Winners purchased from UDBG plant sale

1-Shooting Star (double-bloomer) lacecaps macrophylla Lowes

1-Proven Winners Tuff Stuff serrata “Red” (2021)

1-Haas Halo – native arborenscens lacecap recommended by Mt. Cuba Center as a pollinator favorite (2021)

1-Little Lime by fenceline 2022

1-Ruby Slippers oakleaf, Lowes, 2022 80

1-Rhapsody, Lowes, 2022

2 – Mathilda Gutges, Lowes and in container

1-Pistachio “Horwack” 2022

1- Incrediblush 80 2022

1- Seaside Serenade “Cape May” 2022

1-Unknown Oakleaf 2022

5- Little Lime Punch panicle hydrangea (2022) 92

8- Wee White Dwarf arborescens (2022)  100
END

1-Lacecap “Bethany” a gift from a Master Gardener

Five layerings in progress. We’ll see how many make it! 

I’ve obtained these specimens from local nurseries, mail order, propagation from friends, and those I have created myself from layerings and cuttings! I currently have a dozen cuttings in a tub and it looks like all but two will make it!

The challenge now is to find a place for all of these. I would say half of my collection is small and in that “getting established” period of its life.

Back when I did not know what I was doing, I planted some macrophyllas in high heat, strong sun locations. Most are doing okay, but take daily and sometimes twice-a-day waterings. I doubt at this stage they would take to transplanting, but in leaving them where I have, I am creating additional work for myself down the line. I have taken layering and cutting samples from all of these, as I may try to replace them with paniculata.

Here are some of my favorite photos:

Little Quick Fire panicle hydrangea

Proven Winners Little Quick Fire panicle
Variegated Mariesii. This layers very easily. Much of the new growth is not variegated.

Blue and cream flowers on CityLine “Mars” or

Proven Winners City Line “Mars” It was purchased pink and now blooms in this beautiful, bright blue!

Wet and white! Schnee or Snow along the fence line. They are a macrophylla with deep, dark green foliage.

Oakleafs hydrangea Endless Summer. I wish I knew the variety. These blooms are very tight, curled and never form round shapes. They stay in this flat pagoda shape.

Limelight has become one of my most favorite plants. I heavily prune in early March.

I love to bring hydrangeas indoors. Here I have limelight arranged with a base of Philodendron Selloum. Both last a long time in a vase.

Various vases of my hydrangeas!

I transplanted this Strawberry Sunday from a container to the ground. Doing this interrupted its bloom schedule. But the plant sent me a message with this one, singular bloom, that I had made a good decision and I can look forward to more blooms like this in 2021.

Ruby Slippers earlier in the summer. Compare the spacing of the florets to the Snow Queen below. Bees love this hydrangea!

Oakleaf hydrangea. Either Sykes Dwarf or Snow Queen

A hot house hydrangea grown into a large blue shrub
This was a pink florist hydrangea bouquet that was purchased for my mother’s funeral in 2001. It took 3 years to grow before it bloomed this deep, purply blue!
Unknown blue macrophylla in foreground. Oakleaf “Syke’s Dwarf” in background.
For me a “generic” macrophylla, planted before I knew to record the variety!

Pistachio. This delicate little thing is a slow grower, but has stayed in the pink and rose hues. 

Proven Winners “Incrediball” hydrangea arborescens. These can be pruned heavily in the early spring.

A young Merritt’s Supreme blossom! It shifted from pink to lavender purple its first year,

Unknown big leaf lacecap. Maybe blaumaise?
Oakleaf, I believe is Snow Queen is decidedly lime in July first summer bloom!I love the early lime color! 

Pinky Winky

Pinky Winky first year in the ground! Wiley’s Market Middletown, Delaware

Little Quick Fire July
Vanilla Strawberry or Strawberry Sundae from Wayside Gardens mail order order

Ruby Slippers oakleaf. Last year, I did not water this faithfully and it went from white to brown quickly this year I am watering it every day and it helps sustain the pink part of its season.
Little Lime in early July. Despite its 4 foot maximum height, mine are shooting up stems that are over 5 feet! Mislabeled perhaps? It received a shaping pruning in early March.

Twenty-Twenty

A Great Year for Gardening and Grandmothering

I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that 2020 has been a horrible year so far. Sickly, stressful, polarizing and divisive. Since March 13, 2020 I have worked from home and also had an opportunity to take temporary custody of my only grandchild, Hugo, who lives in NYC with his parents. There, at the epicenter of the pandemic, his parents felt their six and a half year old son might enjoy an extended visit in the southern Delaware countryside with “MiMa.” Both of us did our daily work virtually, and the extra time together concentrated on an outdoor classroom that included birdwatching and feeding, planting vegetables, planting and dividing flowers and learning about insects and pollinators. It was 11-weeks of that silver lining you hear so much about!

My grandson got a kick out of learning about the birds, recognizing the songs and in this case, rat-a-tat-tat of a red-bellied woodpecker
One of our favorite getaways was to go to Best’s Ace Hardware in Lewes and get some birdseed and some toys! Hugo can identify cardinal songs now, and he knows they prefer safflower seeds the most!

Working from home afforded me some extra time to water in the mornings, spend lunch time weeding, and when we were allowed to, visit some garden centers wearing masks.

My hydrangeas (currently 63 and counting) did not get the news 2020 was off to a poor start. I started seeing early indications that this would be a bumper year for hydrangeas. The best ever in my memory.

In my ever-shadier woodland backyard setting, I have lost the opportunity to flower garden. But this year, my husband and I took out three of our five concrete block raised beds (they worked but were unsightly) and used the area to create a pollinator garden. It is still a work in progress.

We added an arbor to differentiate the woodland garden from the pollinator garden. I’ve ordered two “Major Wheeler” native honeysuckles to flank each side. They will arrive in the fall. The arbor adds a nice touch I think! Photo processed through the Brushstroke app.
I moved this sign to the entrance of the arbor!
Another view of the new pollinator garden. My husband laughs at me when I lean back on the lounge and put the hose on. We don’t have irrigation, one of the big mistakes we made when we built this house. Soaker hoses are in the future! We left two sections of a split rail fence that we had to separate a dog run (I used to have a Great Dane) and I like the way it frames the space.

In the pollinator garden is an assortment of natives and non-natives. Echinacea, nepta (catmint) garden phlox “jeana”, various beebalm, senna, coreopsis, gaillardia, pink and purple Veronica speedwell, salvias, Shasta daisies, fennel, milkweed, butterfly weed (Asclepias), yarrow, false sea thrift (armería), stokesia, lavender, rosemary, cornflower, pokeweed, h.paniculata “Bobo”, solidago “Wichita Mountains”, drumstick alliums, and others.

Watering place for pollinators, filled with glass beads so they won’t get too wet!
A gazing ball is a nod to my childhood. A neighbor had one of these, and as a little girl, I thought it was magical. I might relocate this, however, just a few feet forward.
Drumstick alliums shifting from green to dark magenta. I saw these in the Maine Botanical Garden and wanted to add them to my garden! Bees love them!
On the other side of the yard I started Clematis “Jackmanii” The trellis comes from Lewes, at a little antique shop across from the blacksmith shop.
H. Macrophylla “Mariesii” this variety was variegated. It has experienced “revision” which means it has reverted back to mostly solid colored leaves. I think this is the result of too much sun. It is a temperamental bloomer, about 15 years old, this year it went bonkers!
Stoke’s Aster or Stokesia
H. Quercifolia or oakleaf “Syke’s Dwarf”
I wish I knew the name of this beauty, bought around 2005. Not knowing what I know now about Hydrangeas, I planted this in the front of my house with a southern exposure. It bloomed these glorious blue Lacecaps, but it minded the heat something awful. I watered twice a day. Thankfully, other trees in the front yard have matured and have provided afternoon sun relief.
Beebalm in the front yard. Powdery mildew is always an issue. Hoping to add wild bergamot to replace as it is native and less susceptible. Still, the pollinators enjoy the stand that is spreading each year.
This lovely was an unmarked Walmart rescue for $6.99. It’s second year in this spot, facing East, it has about a dozen blooms on it this year! I wish I knew the cultivar of this macrophylla!
This was our original pond that we built the first year we moved in. Last year however, we cut it in half.
I always wanted a “Lutyens” bench and a special place for it. It sits under a large red maple where we can enjoy the waterfall and watch the frogs. We kept koi for many years but had to resort to unsightly nets to keep them safe. All they did was catch falling leaves and the whole thing looked like a big mess. So we found the koi a new home and simplified the water feature.
Blue Herons still come by and visit, hoping for a Koi buffet. We spotted this beauty and her balancing act atop a hot tub privacy fence.
Another view of the Walmart rescue. In the back yard we don’t grow grass. No mowing, no fertilizing, no weed killing. Weed pulling yes! I am trying to establish a moss carpet. Tree and leaf droppings keep the floor mostly vegetative free. I would prefer to dress the ground with pine straw however. This is a bit too rustic for my taste.
Shasta daisies next to a cobalt blue birdbath filled with sedums and succulents. The succulents overwinter quite nicely.
I overwintered most of my pots in the garage. The spikes, geraniums, and lantana all overwintered! I only had to add the alyssum!
H. Arborescens “Incrediball” enjoy their third summer. I haven’t pruned these yet, I think I might do that next March to encourage bigger blossoms.
Another part of the shade garden. The Zen Den is at least 10 to 15 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the property. The Buddha honors respect for life, and all sentient beings. As a backyard wildlife habitat, insects, snakes, rabbits, possums, turtles, frogs, have all found a home here. I still swat mosquitoes though!
Enjoy your gardens! Bee Safe!

I’ve got the blues!

Hydrangea blues that is!

Hydrangeas are my favorite flower and shrub, a passion I inherited from my mother! And while I am fine with the traditional blue, as I expand my hydrangea landscape, I’ve attempted to introduce some other colors, such as whites and limelights (successful) and pinks (unsuccessful).

With varying degrees of intensity of hue, most of my hydrangeas are blue!

My lack of pink hues in my macrophylla hydrangea collection reminds me of a close friend whose first four children were boys. When she became pregnant a fifth time, she decided to wear only pink for the entire pregnancy! In her first trimester she was told to expect twins. She adored her sons, but I think the trains, trucks, footballs, baseball bats and dinosaur decor had run its course. She wanted that pop of pink!  She wanted to introduce Barbie to Spiderman! But, what popped out were fraternal twins-two adorable baby boys! She was delighted. She was in love. Her passion for pink did not linger.  She saved a fortune on baby clothes and toys, and she’ll certainly save a fortune on weddings!

But I empathize with her when it comes to my blue hydrangea children. I adore their show-off blue audaciousness and rock-steady performances. Although I turn to other flowers to contribute pinks, roses and magenta hues in my landscape, I must confess: I too, yearn for that pop of pink in my macrophylla hydrangea family!

The failure in pink is all about my soil chemistry. Here along the Delaware coast, USDA Zone 7b, my soil has a good deal of aluminum sulfate composition and as a result my pink purchases eventually turn into blue boasters! And I am fine with that! But I keep trying, thinking my soil’s chemistry will change all by itself.

I fell in love with a particular hydrangea below (left). Its old-fashioned look and combination of pink centers and creamy white edges reminded me of something my grandmothers might have selected. I quickly scooped it up in my garden center cart and made a bee-line to the checkout counter. I planted it in a special location–at my garden gate entrance where my visitors and I would not miss this unique greeting. For the remainder of the summer I enjoyed the variegated pink display. It was a great choice as the official welcome hostess to my garden. I looked forward to it growing profusely offering delicate pinky goodness in my landscape and bouquets! I believe this is Forever and Ever “Peppermint” though I lost the tag on it when I bought it.

I should not have been surprised, but I was, that my soil had a different plan in store for that shrub. The following year not a trace of pink remained. The blue bully lurking in my soil battled for dominance and won, replacing all of the original, dainty pink hues. To the victor goes the spoils! I am a gracious loser!

While the colors of some hydrangeas varieties are affected by pH, that is not the only factor. Your soil’s pH will affect the uptake of nutrients and minerals that pre-exist in the soil. With hydrangeas, it is the uptake of aluminum sulfate that is the primary factor for color.

If you have pink, and want blue, it’s easy to add aluminum sulfate to the soil if it is not there, and make your soil more acidic.

But if aluminum sulfate is already in your soil naturally, it’s much more difficult to remove, and simply changing the pH toward alkaline will only slow down the plant’s ability to access that aluminum. But it will not be enough to override the blue. This Georgia Extension site explains it. A good deal of misinformation and Old Wives’ Tales on changing color abound on the Internet. My mom told me pushing pennies in the soil would change, or boost the color!

Another way to explain how it works is to think of your soil pH as a straw. Acidic soil would be a very wide straw, allowing the plant to uptake its mineral needs, and therefore turning pink into blues or purples or violets. Alkaline soil would be akin to a very narrow straw, preventing the plant from accessing those same minerals, therefore remaining pink. If the aluminum sulfate and other minerals are already in the soil, it’s easy to change the size of the straw. But those minerals have to be there, or be added. It is next to impossible to remove minerals, which is what one needs to do to get the pink hues. But you can try to reduce access to those minerals by narrowing the straw.

Adding commercial additives like aluminum sulfate or acidifier however, will not be reliably stable. We all know hydrangeas love water, and if we are not getting enough rain, we are watering often! This helps wash away what we are adding to the soil. The water pushes these nutrients through the soil profile, so the desired change is rarely permanent. If your soil is healthy to begin with, soil with a lot of organic matter, the minerals will have something to hang on to.

When planting a new pink hydrangea that you hope to shift to blue, it is good to amend the soil at the very beginning, adding compost, leaf litter, pine straw etc., which take longer to decompose, and while doing so alters the soil’s composition and quality.

Some soils have pockets of alkaline and acidic qualities. Rarely is your soil consistent across your property. Soils with a diverse composition,combined with an unknown history can yield surprising results! Did a structure exist on the spot sometime in the recent or distant past? Did the original roofer leave beer cans that got covered over? Are there decaying roots from a plant that existed decades ago? Factors like that might account for a pH or metallic anomaly. Neutral pH can be a delightful blessing, providing the hydrangea owner with blues, pinks and purples from the same plant! Roots spread in all directions so who knows what they’ve tapped into!

The plants I buy purposely as blue are normally not as beautiful as the blues that start out as pink and transition over to blue. Those chameleon blues are stunners! The flower below, was a deep pink, hot-house hydrangeas with blooms forced for the Easter market. I planted it that same year and it stopped blooming, which I expected. For an additional two years it grew and leafed out and did not bloom. But on the third planted year, the shrub, nearly 5 foot tall, was festooned with these beautiful blue balls with just a whisper hint of lavender! Why its more blue than any of the blues I bought as blue!

In July 2017, I bought another hydrangea (because one can never have enough and I am completely justified since I suffer from GBTH (Gotta Buy This Hydrangea) Syndrome–a serious affliction for which I am refusing treatment! My husband, however, has tried many forms of intervention upon me, alas (hooray) to no avail. I googly-eyed and exclaimed “ooh la la” over a specimen and eventually bought the “Merritt’s Supreme” looker, seen below. The garden center owner assured me it “should stay” pink. Even without this expert assurance, I was going to buy this showy darling! I heaved her into my trunk for the short ride home (yes, I refer to it as a she). Here it is where I gave her a new home in a wooded setting:

Miss Merritt is leafing out now and setting  her 2018 buds. Other than adding home-grown compost at planting, I’ve not added any fertilizer or amendments. I resolved to let nature take her course. Stay tuned for the June reveal!

UPDATE: June 17, 2018: We’ve gone purple! I love the color shift.

In 2018 I don’t have as many blooms. The spot I selected clearly gets more shade than what my Merritt’s Supreme obtained at her nursery. We’re going to do some strategic tree pruning, and take down one Arborvitae that is not doing well, and that should allow more light to filter through and improve the flower yield of this shrub for 2019. But look at this violet color!

Update 2021: In the past three years my Merritt Supreme has grown quite a bit. It really needs three years to adjust to its new environment and come into its own. The color has remained a violet purple. You can see a true blue in the background:

As new cultivars get introduced to the market, and breeding and genetics become more sophisticated, I find that certain cultivars possess strong genetic colorfastness. In an other more wooded area of my yard, I purchased an Endless Summer “Summer Crush” in late summer of 2020. The fading blooms were pink, as was the beautiful photo on the label. It was a late season deal, so I wasn’t going to see any new blossoms after planting.

But this spring she began to leaf out and as the green buds expanded, I received the pink I’ve always longed for. Here is the display after its first year in the ground:

Early June

Late June

Despite being surrounded by blue hydrangeas, tree droppings, pine needles, and leaf litter, this baby has not shifted color in the least. I know aluminum sulfate is in the soil, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Time will tell as the roots expand into the the surrounding soil.

Another hydrangea I bought from Wayside Gardens (about 10 years ago) is “Pistachio”. The color of the genetics is steady and unwavering. This is the color advertised, the color I received with its first, measly single bloom, and the blooms I enjoy 10 years later!

Obviously, tenacity, patience and experimentation has broken through my blue barrier! I am very fortunate to work with Cooperative Extension experts, agents and specialists, and through them, I appreciate the value of soil tests, understanding how soils, and the micronutrients contained within, work to feed a plant.

Get to know your soil before listening to your neighbor or reading a social media post for a solution. It is important to know basic soil chemistry, the role of organic matter for healthy soil, and what your shrub needs rather than what you want it to be.

For a hydrangea to reach its full color potential within its own color spectrum also means you must provide it with a happy home. The right plant in the right spot. The right shrub in the wrong spot will not perform as it should. Too much sun, too much heat, improper pruning, stone mulch, are all human errors that can stress your hydrangea. If you are in the U.S., contact a Cooperative Extension expert or Master Gardener. Very likely there is one in every county that can respond to your specific needs — experts who understand your local climate and soil.

2018: Summer of Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas were my mother’s favorite flower and landscape shrub and she was a strong influence for me to include hydrangeas in my garden. I now have 55 separate plants on a pie-shaped .73 acre lot. Most I have purchased outright to get different varieties, and about 12 or so are propagated, something I learned how to do from Master Gardener workshops.

A large factor on how hydrangeas will perform is Mother Nature. A dip in temperature in the spring — a late frost will devastate the summer performance of many hydrangeas. Knowing the type of hydrangeas you have, where it will thrive, its sun requirements, and ultimately how to prune correctly are essential for growing profuse blooms.

In Delaware, Zone 7b, we had a very wet, soggy spring and no late frosts! The result: a blooming bonanza for Hydrangeas! July will bring the paniculatas such as Limelight, Little Limelight and Little firelight.

We replaced most of our Knock-out roses in the southern front of our home with plants like this “Little Limelight” which won’t get as big as regular Limelight and loves the sun the front of our house receives.

Hydrangeas are beautiful inside too! Bring them indoors! Accented here with lavender spires and lemon balm

Hydrangea “Sikes Dwarf”

So many blooms in 2018, there is plenty to show and take inside. Sprigs of lemon balm add a soft green accent. The tiny white flower is “pearly everlasting.” By mid summer, dill and parsley are starting seed heads and these add interest to a bouquet!

I call the above mom’s hydrangea. This was one of the pink hot house flowers the florists delivered at my mother’s funeral. I planted it in 2001 where it grew for three years before blooming. This shrub is 19 years old and is the most vulnerable in the winter. It faces east. This year it has come back nicely.

Variegated “Mariesii”

I don’t know the name of this hydrangea as it was mislabeled by the home improvement garden center. I thought it would be a white schneeball, but its first blossoms were pink and white. All subsequent years produced this blue and cream white blossom. I don’t know the cultivar but I love the old-fashioned look. It is always a reliable bloomer. Faces south but it is shaded by large trees from direct sun.

Above is a mountain variety I purchased from the mail order catalog Wayside Gardens. I wasn’t good about writing down the cultivars. I’ve asked them to see if my purchase from 10 years ago is still on record. These blossoms start out white and transition to pink and rose. A beautiful water color effect.

Niko Blue Macrophylla

This lacecap beauty was one of two my husband and I purchased at a garden center in Pennsylvania in 2006. One was for my mother-in-law, and I loved it so much he got one for me! I was so bad then about saving the labels. It is planted where it gets afternoon sun (not the best place) so we have to baby it and water it generously. It is a delightful frame for our front porch and is a true blue performer!

Hydrangea quercifolia “Snow Queen” looking up through the blossoms!

My wonderful hydrangea addiction

I just bought my 40th hydrangea shrub. That may or may not seem like a lot unless I factor in my .73 acre lot! There isn’t a garden center in the area I haven’t patronized!

Some recent redesigning of our landscape, including the removal of a diseased tree and a long narrow raised bed along a fence line, provided an excuse to go out and fill up my backseat and haul home new family members.

At the onset of my hydrangea condition, I wasn’t very good at chronicling what I purchased. I tried. I’d collect the plastic labels or containers, neatly stack them in the garage whereupon my husband would toss them out in the trash. Many of my earliest cultivars are mysteries.

One is this beautiful lacecap! In 2007 my husband and I traveled to Pennsylvania to visit his mother on Mother’s Day and we stopped by a local nursery to get her something for her front yard. She didn’t have any hydrangeas and we both fell in love with a stunning 2ft tall blue lacecap, just loaded with the most intensely blue blooms. We got one for his mother and one for me to take home. I planted her facing south, probably not the best idea, but we have enough trees in the front yard to provide some shade. The heat is what gets her, rather than sun, so we have to be generous with the water.

Delaware in USDA Zone 7b has of late had its share of late frost in early spring. My blue beauty, now nearly 5 ft tall is vulnerable and can only boast three or four show-stopping years in her blooming career. The last few have been duds. But 2018 is a good recovery year! She’s started off with a good showing of azure blossoms, some with the flat pan in the middle, others with it missing. I might never learn the cultivar, but I call her Marian’s Pennsylvania Pretty, in honor of my mother-in-law who we lost in 2008.

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.