If roses are Shakespearean drama, love and wars won and lost, then hydrangeas are salty sea air, sunburned shoulders, and sand in your shoes.
They’re bicycles with wicker baskets leaning carelessly up against a picket fence, beach towels hung out to dry in the late afternoon, and double scoops of ice cream, hand-dipped and dripping down the cone. Hydrangeas are summer. And whether your yard is full sun or full shade, and you have acres to plant or just a wall to climb, one of these hydrangeas is perfect for you.
For our purposes, we’ll focus on a few of those most commonly grown in our region. Because none of us should miss out on summer.
• Hydrangea macrophylla. The most popular among home gardeners, for many of us, these “mopheads” are the charming old-fashioned hydrangeas that come readily to mind. With large, showy, ball-shaped flowers in shades of pink and blue (and sometimes white) these shrubs are a lovely addition to mixed borders, and outstanding when used as a hedge. And if you’re the type whose daydreams involve gray shingled cottages on Cape Cod, you need look no further.
Be warned though – many varieties of hydrangea macrophylla will require protection to survive our Zone 5 winters. Generally they prefer sun in the morning and some afternoon shade, and like all hydrangeas, plenty of water.
Only prune when absolutely necessary, and do so immediately after flowering to avoid removing next year’s buds. Hydrangea macrophylla is sensitive to soil pH, which means the acidity of the soil and availability of aluminum will influence flower color.
Generally, a more acidic soil will result in blue flowers, pink if the soil is alkaline.
So, if you simply can’t abide the sight of pink blooms on the otherwise perfect row lining your foundation, adding a bit of soil sulfur should give them a nudge in the right direction.
Conversely, if it’s pink flowers you’re after, amending the soil with a little lime might do the trick.
• Hydrangea aborescens. Similar in appearance to the mopheads, with their often huge, white, snowball-shaped flowers, Hydrangea aborescens can be grown successfully in a cold climate, (hardy to Zone 3!) and is one of the only hydrangeas native to the United States.
These reliable bloomers are a fantastic choice for partly shaded areas of the mixed border, or for massing together in a woodland or native garden.
Aborescens blooms on the current season’s growth, so pruning them in late winter or early spring by cutting stems back to one or two feet will encourage a healthy shape and new growth and flowers.
• Hydrangea paniculata. Christened on account of its flowers, which form a cone shaped panicle, Hydrangea paniculata is hardy to Zone 3 and, unlike many other hydrangeas, tolerates full sun.
The showy, pyramidal blooms start off white in midsummer turning a faint pink as the season draws to a close, and in the fall, leaves become golden with hints of purple.
Panicle hydrangeas respond well to pruning, and are in fact the only hydrangea that can be pruned into a tree form. Since blooming occurs on the current season’s growth, they can be pruned in the late winter, or early spring.
• Hydrangea quercifolia. These are commonly known as the “oakleaf” hydrangeas, owing to the resemblance the leaves bear to those of an oak tree.
Similar to Hydrangea paniculata, flowers are panicle shaped, start off white and age to a deep pink. In fall, it’s the leaves that command attention as they turn beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow. Oakleaf hydrangea can be grown in sun or shade, and since they bloom on “old wood” (meaning, last year’s stems) if pruning is necessary, it should be done immediately after blooming, early enough to avoid removing next summer’s flowers.
• Hydrangea petiolaris. Yes, there is a climbing hydrangea! This woody ornamental vine may be slow to establish, but it can climb up to 50 feet at maturity, and its lateral branches will grow out several feet as well, making it a grand sight when covered in a multitude of creamy white flowers come midsummer.
Since Hydrangea petiolaris will tolerate sun or shade, it presents a nice choice for darker corners of the garden or the north side of the house.
Regardless of their flower color, hydrangea blooms are big and bold and carefree, just like this season. They are a restorative sight during the long, hot, happy days of late summer and the perfect backdrop to all of our evening strolls and warm nights on porch swings.
And best of all, they inspire even us born and raised Midwesterners to feel like all we really need in life is the sun, surf, and a first-rate seashell collection. And maybe one of those little cottages at the Cape.
• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for information.