By Dan Lynch
Every queer knows that in order to get your gay card, you've got to know one key fact about Madonna and gardening. And we confess, we understand her dilemma. My childhood memories of hydrangeas are of driving out to Cape Cod and seeing hundreds of large mophead hydrangeas, all the same shade of toilet-bowl blue, next to almost every other cottage en route to the beach.
You don’t want to know my feelings about Body of Evidence, Madonna
But the fact of the matter is, hydrangeas are an important part of the mid-summer garden, especially if you have a lot of shade, since they're one of the few shade-happy shrubs to offer blooms at this time of year. (Most hydrangeas are happiest with a bit of shade, and many will be happy in even full shade, if it’s bright shade. Paniculatas are the most common exception, requiring a few hours of direct sun.) Moreover, the blooms on hydrangeas last a long time; many of mine still look decent well into winter in Portland (although they melt to mush once we get a real cold snap). Fortunately, there are a lot of options in hydrangeas, and there are even some ways to make mopheads more interesting.
You don’t have to have flowers named for cleaning supplies any more, Monet!
First, all about that color thing
Mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla) are of course what people think of when they think of hydrangeas. And the flowers range from cotton candy pink to, um, cotton candy blue. If you’re like me, you’re partial to a purple somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And the same plant can be trained to grow any of these colors—it’s all about soil PH. If you don’t like the color of your established hydrangea (and it’s probably best to let your plant grow a bit before you start chemically enhancing), you can easily change the color by changing the soil:
Want a bluer flower next year? Add coffee grounds or egg shells on the soil around your plant to raise the acid level gently and safely.
Want your flowers to be slightly pinker? Add a bit of lime (the soil amendment, not the fruit) around the base of your plant. Your local nursery should have some in stock.
Hydrangeas are probably the most common plant in a typical homeowners garden where you can tweak flower color, and if you have a mophead, I recommend you give it a whirl for 2019.
Local queen Hydrangea Strangea will also consider changing colors if you buy her enough whiskey gingers.
Other Hydrangea varieties
Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) have emerged as one of my favorite shade shrubs. Like the name denotes, these plants have oakleaf-shaped leaves, adding some foliage interest, and usually white or ivory dangling panicles that can get quite long (2’ or more). As the panicles age in fall, they tend to fade to a dusky rose pink—meaning you get several phases of color over several months of bloom.
There are a large variety of cultivars available, and quite a few of them are double (several rows of petals), leading to a much more complex flower structure than you typically get with a mophead. The single variety ‘Munchkin’ is great because it’s reliably dwarfish, for places where you want a smaller plant, but my favorite in the heavily double ‘Snowflake.’
Lacecap hydrangeas (Hydrangea serrata) offer a completely different flower form, offering a flat flower head with an outer ring of large, florets meant to attract pollinators and an inner cluster of smaller fertile flowers in the center of each panicle. Depending on the variety, the decorative flowers on lacecaps can be either pure, crisp white, hydrangea blue or can be variable based on soil, like the macrophylla/mophead varieties.
Hydrangea paniculata offer HUGE panicles of chartreuse to white flowers that usually age to pink in the fall. These are some of the largest hydrangeas in this article, and also have the largest panicles (clusters of bloom). Of the major hydrangea groups listed here, this species is going to require the most sun (although they can definitely put up with part shade).
Climbing hydrangeas are actually several species of hydrangea plants. Most common in nurseries are the deciduous species Hydrangea petiolaris and Schizophragma hydrangeoides (a close hydrangea relative). I’ve seen them perform nicely in the Portland area, but the variety I’ve fallen for is Mexican Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea seemannii). Mine is “just” four years old and is still getting mature, but it’s spurting up a 25’ concrete wall at a pace of about 4’ a year, is evergreen (a huge, huge asset for a climber) and will eventually cover itself in white summer blooms. In five years time, I expect to replace a gray concrete wall with self-attaching year-round greenery that also happens to flower.
How to (not) prune hydrangeas
I had a cousin come to visit a few summers ago and in the process of admiring my hydrangea blooms he lamented, “I can’t get mine to bloom! I trim them really nicely every spring and all I get is green!” Well, that’s the problem.
A bad haircut does NOT leave you looking your best, right, Mindy?
Most hydrangea varieties bloom on old wood, meaning that next year’s flowers are already in microscopic form by fall at the ends of your plants’ branches. If you prune, you’ll cut them off!
That’s not to say you can’t prune your plants, but that you should do this understanding what you’re cutting off. I usually just deadhead flowers once they get unsightly (usually once a relatively hard frost hits in mid-winter), cutting as little off as I can, and then check again in the spring when my shrubs are starting to bud, when I prune off any dead portions of branches not showing any buds. Because my dogs tend to round corners around two of my larger bushes, I also often cut the lowest drooping branches off near the base to give my plants a more vase-like shape. And as with virtually any plant, you can always feel free to cut off any growth that’s weak or spindly looking relative to the rest of the shrub.
Relatedly, that means when planting a hydrangea, you need to think about its final size—if you try to squeeze a plant that wants to be 6’ across into a 3’ space, that will work out fine while its growing, but will leave you with a happy, healthy, flowerless plant when it’s ready to be full size and you keep pruning it to fit.
Where and how to buy
Most Portland area nurseries will have a reasonably large selection of hydrangea options to choose from, including most of the varieties mentioned in this article. I’ve had more luck planting larger specimens (plus you save a year’s growth), so if you have the budget for three smaller plants or one bigger one, I’d lean towards the larger plant. Hydrangeas Plus in nearby Aurora has, however, the widest selection of anyone in the Portland area, but they’re a wholesaler and only sell to the public at a handful of garden shows and select on-site open houses—check their website for details.
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