02 August 2012

Hydrangeas, hydrangeas, hydrangeas

 The heat of summer is upon us with August's arrival, in case it hasn't already been wearing you down where you live. Actually, as I write this we in my part of Nova Scotia are in day 2 of cloudy, drizzly day, and the gardens are looking much happier for it.

This past weekend we were busy at The Blomidon Inn in Wolfville, doing tours of their gardens (which are open to the public, dawn to dusk daily. You don't have to be a guest, dining or shopping there, although I highly recommend the Inn and its House of Gifts for all those things and more). Among the highlights of the gardens are the 'Hydrangea Hill' plantings outside the Inn's Conference Centre. We had quite a few questions about hydrangeas, so I promised a blog post. And here it is.

Hydrangeas are one of my favourite genera of woody plants, although they aren't all equal in terms of how to grow them and how easy they are. They do best with quite a bit of sun, and lots of moist, organic-rich but well-draining soil. Those are the very basics of hydrangeas, but there are exceptions  and there are particular pointers for choosing the best plants for your conditions. 

There is one creeping/climbinb hydrangea, Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris. It does well in dappled shade and/or morning sun with some afternoon shade. Once established, it is a vigourous grower, and can be trained to grow up a trellis, a hardwood tree, a wall, or other place where it can grow well-supported. It's hardy to zone 4 and produces lacecap-type flowers in pure white. Highly recommended. 

Another easy-growing selection is the Annabelle hydrangea. (Hydrangea arborescens, 'Annabelle' and related cultivars). This species is known for its vigourous growth and large white heads of pure white flowers. I have two of this species growing in full sun and they are almost too vigourous, as I have to prune them to curb their size every spring. They spread gradually, and can have massive flowerheads, which frustrate many gardeners because they tend to flop. 

You can control the floppiness with some corrective pruning to strengthen stems. Prune them in the fall after they've finished blooming, and you won't have the messy stems to look at all winter, and it will be one less chore to do in the spring. I do prune mine in spring, but I don't cut back all the stems, but thin out a number of them, and this also helps to make the flowers larger. Some people cut their Annabelles almost to the ground, but the stems aren't as likely to strengthen as they are if you only cut them back by a couple of feet each year. 
With Annabelle hydrangeas, it doesn't matter what the soil pH is--the flowers will be white and that is that. There IS one exception, and that is a recently developed pink-flowered form, Invincibelle Spirit. It has dusty rose flowers, and blooms on new wood so it's touted for being reliable in blooming. I planted one this summer and I'm withholding judgement for now. The stems seem very floppy so far this summer (which is a common complaint that I've heard from others trying this plant), but the dusty-rose coloured flowers are pretty. I'm interested to hear from other gardeners who have had Invincibelle Spirit for more than one growing year.

 My personal favourite hydrangeas are the lace caps, which are a form of Hydrangea macrophylla, along with the mopheads. For me, lacecaps like Blue Billows, above, bloom reliably every year and bloom for a long, long time. They also have good fall colour, and I even get some purple florets on one of my plants because the pH is just right. More on that in a bit.
This is a lacecap called 'Edgy Orbits', one of the Proven Winners plants. It is noted for having double flowers, pink edged with white IF the pH is alkaline enough for it. I have only seen it blooming pink, but it's fairly new to this area and I suspect it would turn quite blue in my soil. 
'Tokyo Delight' is an older lacecap variety, apparently, but I only saw it for the first time at the Blomidon Inn this past week, and I loved it. The sterile flowers are the white ones around the edge of the lacecap, and the fertile flowers are blue. The petals are also serrated, and the whole effect is stunning. I don't know where the Lacebys got their plant, but I want one! 
The mopheads, as their names suggest, have large, round, moplike clusters of florets. Many of the older varieties bloom on old wood, so if they aren't reliably hardy where you are, you'll find the old stems kill back, and that new growth emerges from the base of the plant and you get no flowers. I tried a 'Nikko Blue' for a few years but finally composted it. 

The Cityline series of mopheads may be more to my climate's liking. The plants are more compact, and seem to be hardier, listed at zone 5. So I'm going to try 'Cityline Vienna', a double-flowering mophead with flowers that start out green and turn pink in alkaline soil, blue in acid soil. We'll see what happens.

I do have Endless Summer Original, which is touted for being hardy, blooming on old and new wood, and blooming all summer. Of the five years I've had it, it has performed really well twice, but for the most part it has given me headaches with being unreliable, and I turfed my old plant this spring. I did get another one and planted it in more sun and more steadily moist soil, so we'll see how it does.
 Next to the lacecaps, I am most fond of the peegee type hydrangeas. Pee gee is an abbreviation for paniculata grandiflora, which describes the shape of the flowerheads of these plants: large, conelike panicles of florets. In these parts, the peegee type hydrangeas are often called cemetery plants because they are so often planted in old community graveyards. They are later blooming, and can be trained into a tree-like form if you're so inclined.

 Of the peegee types, I have two favourites: 'Limelight', which produces huge clusters of pale green flowers, and 'Quick Fire', which is the earliest of the peegees to flower around here. Mine is already well into bloom, where Limelight, Pinky Winky, and other peegees are still busily forming flowerheads. They can be pruned in spring or autumn, just not in late spring/early summer when they're forming their blooms. I find they also have good fall foliage colour.

The only type of hydrangea I back away from are the oakleaf hydrangeas, which aren't reliably hardy for me. They are soooo beautiful, and may be if global warming is happening, I can find a microclimate where I can try one more time with one of them. If you're not in zone 6 or warmer, I wouldn't bother with the oakleafs, unless you're prepared to baby the plant and have it still not survive.

Perhaps the most jaw-droppingly beautiful are the purple flowered hydrangeas, which are a happy occurence when soil pH is not too acid, not too alkaline, and the original cultivar is a rich deep blue or pink colour. I get some purple blooms on one of my 'Blue Billows' lacecaps, but because I don't have great success with the mopheads, I have yet to have something like the above photo in my garden. I'm content, however, to enjoy them in other people's gardens, and there are a lot of them down around Yarmouth.

I hope this little primer is some help to would-be hydrangea growers, and that you'll be tickled pink, blue, white, or yes, purple with your results!


  1. We have had Invincible Spirit for a couple of years, but I am still reserving judgement. Like you, I find the plant quite floppy. The pink color is a bit "muddy". It did have a brush with an excavator last fall, but survived that little incident.

  2. In the near future I will most definitely be adding Hydrangeas to my garden. I was always under the impression they needed shade. It's so nice to hear they can handle the sun.

  3. My invincibelle looks like crap and my endless summer which I spent a small fortune on didn't make it through the winter. I'm starting to wonder if hydrangeas are worth the trouble.

    Little Homestead in the Valley

  4. So nice to see all the hydrangeas as with the drought we only had Oakleaf bloom.

  5. Having recently moved from way up north to the west coast, I am thrilled to have and be learning about the gorgeous hydrangeas. This primer is really helpful for me as I learn about all these exotic (to me) plants. Thank you.

  6. Great post, Jodi! I enjoyed reading about the various hydrangeas. I have several but they can be tempermental at times. I do enjoy them very much. Have a nice week!

  7. I'm crazy for hydrangeas ever since I discovered the "hardy" series that will actually survive in my zone 5 gardens. Added eight more plants this year.

  8. Thanks for your comments, everyone! As some of you note, hydrangeas can be tempermental, but I find that so long as they have adequate moisture and decent winter drainage, plus I pick the right ones for my hardiness zone, they do brilliantly here. Perhaps because it doesn't get toooooo hot here--they are popular along the South and Acadian shores of Nova Scotia, both of which have cooler temperatures than some parts of my province.

  9. Hello Jodi girl : )
    I have a soft spot for hydrangea too!
    I started out with Little Lamb which I love still (your first one always feels like that :-)
    I have collected a few more and fell in love with "Little Lime" this year .. so much so that I bought 3 of them. They are perfect for the smaller gardens and just make you smile when you see them.
    Oak leaf are way too scary for me to invest money in, haha.

  10. Thank you for the primer on hydrangeas. Now I understand better why we have blooms on one plant and not on others we pruned at the wrong time! Can't thank you enough!

  11. Welcome, sensiblegardening! Yes, I agree! I know a big fat bumblebee who had his satchels full of pollen this morning climbing around my mullein flowers who would also agree with you wholeheartedly!.Kolkata Flowers

  12. Just been surfing around and found your post about Hydrangeas.
    Really love these flowers and hate when they fail to bloom.
    After looking at your post - I'm now trying to tempt myself to getting this plant bloom in my garden.
    Truly I never seen so many types of Hydrangeas.
    The only ones I came across are the Hophead - Nikko blue.

  13. Beautiful photos, beautiful flowers. I live in San Jose, California, and in my previous yard I had huge hydrangeas whose only care was to make sure they got water and to trim the stalks down to about 2 joints every winter. Never started them here in this yard, which is much more clay-ey (clayish? clayed?). Miss them!

  14. I love the background picture with the hydrangea overlooked by the cat. Very nice. And I love hydrangeas, so enjoyed your post.

  15. I am interested in trying hydrangeas in Murray Siding, outside of Truro. I recently visited Vancouver and was blown away by the amount and beauty of these shrubs in that city. I remember visiting Wolfville a few years ago and noticed how many purple/blue ones there. What variety would be your suggestion for a newbie gardener with 3.5 acres to play with? Thanks, Sylvia


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