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Learning to Grow: Hybrid, cross-bred hydrangeas maintenance-free specimens

Published: Thursday, July 3, 2014 4:43 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, July 3, 2014 4:47 p.m. CDT
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(Provided photo)
Often called “bigleaf” varieties, the hydrangeas that typically come to mind when thinking of a hydrangea can change color according to the acidity of the soil, such as the flowers of Endless Summer (pictured), which appear blue in color.

Hydrangeas have come a long way in a very short time.

The Nikko blue and orb varieties that were such a challenge to grow have given way to newer varieties and easier options. It seemed like you could never do right by your hydrangea – coddling and coaxing it just to get a few measly flowers.

But with hybrids and cross-breeding, they’ve developed some truly maintenance-free specimens that even the novice gardener can enjoy.

Macrophylla hydrangeas include the mophead and lacecap varieties and refer to the round, ball-like shape of the blooms or staggered blooming of the flower heads.

Often called “bigleaf” varieties, these are the hydrangeas that typically come to mind when you think of a hydrangea and can change color according to the acidity of the soil. But bear in mind that these Japanese natives are technically only hardy to zone 6 and we’re in zone 5.

New varieties of these include Endless Summer, Twist and Shout, and Abracadabra, which show more promise if given plenty of water and maintained in a protected area where the “old wood” might not freeze during our harsh winters.

Blushing Bride is an appealing alternative that tolerates our cold winters, and Bloomstruck is more heat tolerant for sunnier yards.

Although it’s not a macrophylla, many landscapers and homeowners have had success with Annabelle hydrangeas, which still have the big mophead-like blooms, big leaves and are cold tolerant to zone 4.

If you’re attached to your macrophyllas or dead set on a Nikko blue, your best bet is cover them like roses with lots of mulch to keep the wood from freezing.  I myself have abandoned these fickle varieties for the lower-maintenance paniculata hydrangeas.

Paniculata-type hydrangeas aren’t new but have recently experienced an explosion in the market with the development of Pinky-Winky, Vanilla Strawberry and Quick Fire, all patented varieties with unique color-changing blooms that capture your attention for months. Paniculata refers to the conical shape of the flowers and, although the foliage is less dense than that of the macrophylla, features a striking contrast from stem to leaf.

These varieties usually bloom one color and change as the weather cools, sometimes with the staggered blooming of a lacecap.

This type actually dates back to the 1800s with the variety Pee-Gee, which is also available in a tree form. Its hardy nature and low maintenance requirements make it easy for anyone to grow. I’d even call it contagious, since after my first summer with my Vanilla Strawberry I went out and bought three more!

An added bonus: Many of these varieties only require part sun exposure as opposed to macrophylla, which prefer gratuitous amounts of morning sun.

Two less common, although equally dramatic types of hydrangeas are the oakleaf and climbing hydrangea. Oakleaf refers to the very obvious oak-like qualities of the leaves, but they also have striking conical flowers.

 Oakleaf hydrangeas are actually native to the United States and are unique because of their beautiful fall foliage. Climbing hydrangeas are great features for walls or trellises, with woody stems and small leaf clusters. Both take a few years to get established but are great options for shadier sites.

With so many options it’s easy to see how these great shrubs have found their way into so many yards. Even if you swore them off long ago, think again about another try!

• Jody Lay is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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