In Praise of Hydrangeas

By Andy McIndoe

Hydrangeas: For All Year Round Interest

Hydrangeas have been enjoying an uplift in popularity in recent years; deservedly so because they have one of the longest flowering seasons of any group of flowering shrubs. There are so many different types to choose from besides the traditional lacecap and mophead varieties of Hydrangea macrophylla.

Hydrangea paniculata has those amazing lilac-like flowerheads, which rise above the border in late summer. Hydrangea arborescens produces those large meringue-like flowerheads, under the shade of trees. Hydrangea quercifolia has huge oak-like leaves that colour richly in fall.

2 Hydrangea macrophylla (1280x881)

However, the late summer and fall is not their only season of interest. When other flowering shrubs are just dry sticks, some hydrangeas still retain the beautiful parchment remains of last summer’s blooms.

Some would argue that these are every bit as beautiful, and contribute just as much to the planting picture. I took a look at some fine specimens in early spring.

Surrounded by camellias, early rhododendrons and clouds of spring blossom they present a more subtle picture, however their flower forms and textures are captivating. See what you think:

3 Hydrangea paniculata 'Unique'  (2) (1280x960)

I should point out that the winter weather has been drier than it is sometimes. Also there has been little snow to smother the shrubs.

However these dried flower heads are remarkably tough and resilient and are still in good enough condition for cutting for floral decoration; truly everlasting up until the point of dead-heading or early spring pruning.

4 Hydrangea paniculata 'Unique' (1280x853)

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Unique’ is one of the most spectacular varieties of this type of hydrangea. The large flowerheads open cream, flush pink and green before turning to oak brown.

Hydrangea paniculata needs hard pruning in early spring to stimulate vigorous growth for the following season. However the flowers remain decorative right up to that point.

5 Hydrangea paniculata 'Tardiva' (1280x853)

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ has a more open panicle with more tiny fertile florets and a few large sterile ones. The flower heads are carried on upright stems and remain beautiful through winter whatever the weather.

6 Hydrangea arborescens (1280x934)

The large, rounded heads of Hydrangea arborescens can become very floppy, bending under their weight.

In drier conditions the flowers tend to be smaller and the stems carry them more satisfactorily.

The pink-flowered Hydrangea arborescens Invincibell Spirit is more upright in habit with light airy flower heads which change to soft parchment in late autumn. In early spring they were really quite beautiful and ghost-like in the border.

7 IMG_9498 (1280x853)

The large mophead hydrangeas reliably retain their dried flowerheads over winter. These should be left in place anyway to protect the emerging buds on the stems below.

If left unpruned, as they often are in large gardens, the remains of previous years’ flowers can often be found low down on the stems of the shrubs.

Mophead hydrangeas can be cut and dried for flower arranging anytime from when the flowers are full mature on the shrubs, right through to when the dried heads have been on the shrubs for several months the following spring.

8 Hydrangea 'Lanarth White' (1280x853)

The lacecap varieties of Hydrangea macrophylla dry in a similar way. The smaller-flowered varieties, often white ones, are some of the most beautiful in their dried state. By early spring the florets are almost translucent; catching the light like lacewings.

9 Hydrangea 'Ayesha' (1280x960)

Hydrangea ‘Ayesha’ is a great favourite of mine, with small incurved florets which are a lovely shade of blue on acid soils. It is quite unlike other mophead varieties and is smaller in stature than many; free flowering too.

10 Hydrangea 'Ayesha' (1280x853)

The flower heads dry exquisitely on the plants and remain in good condition through winter. They rather remind me of a bowl of rice krispies; almost soft, crunchy and oh, so tactile.

11 Hydrangea aspera Kawakamii Group (1280x960)

Hydrangea aspera ‘Kawakamii Group’ is a stunning sight in early fall when the large, flattened, lacy lilac, pink and blue flowerheads are luxuriant against the dark green velvet leaves.

In its dormant state the upright snaking tan coloured stems carry the same faded lace with large oak-brown fertile florets hanging around the filigree crown. I probably wouldn’t plant this shrub for its winter beauty, but it is certainly a bonus.

12 Hydrangea aspera 'Kawakamii group' (1280x834)

Enjoying the remains of last summer’s flowers this late into the New Year is a reminder that we should never be too energetic in our efforts to tidy and control. This can mean that you lose a major aspect of the natural beauty of the plants in your garden.

Andy McIndoe

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