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.
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.
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).
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 early 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 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 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 that is the primary factor for color.
If you have pink, and want blue, it’s easy to add aluminum to the soil if it is not there, and make your soil more acidic.
But if aluminum 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!
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 google-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 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:
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: 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!
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!