Gardening: Hydrangeas Madonna could love


Hydrangea Invincibelle Spirit is a pink version of the popular Annabelle. (Todd Michael Johnson/PROVEN WINNERS)
Gardening columnist

If you follow these things, you will know that pop star Madonna could barely hide her disdain recently when a fan presented her with a certain flower. An open mike then revealed her full feelings vis a vis the donated bloom. “I absolutely loathe hydrangeas.”

We don’t know why she loathes hydrangeas, perhaps because of their old lady connotations. Madonna seems to have been fighting her inner granny for a long time.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

She is free, of course, to despise hydrangeas. Indeed, a gardener with strong tastes is often the best plant artist, knowing how to group preferred flowers and discarding personal horrors. Beware the gardener who likes everything. Although, you are allowed to change your mind.

I have made a place in my heart for plants I used to dislike, realizing for example that something as dull and garish as a marigold must be admired for its willingness alone. Abelia was a shrub that I passed over many years ago, perhaps because I was thinking of the uninspiring and bulletproof glossy abelia, a plant of parking lots. But there are many improved varieties of glossy and Chinese abelias, some dwarf and well suited to container use or as a butterfly-attracting filler in the border.

I still don’t find anything redeeming about the annual known as cock’s comb or crested celosia. It is hideous all the way around.

Bluebird is a classic hydrangea. The lacecap is a mix of sterile and fertile flowers. (Monrovia)

As for hydrangeas, I used to share Madonna’s dislike of them, viewing them as common, vulgar even, with their associations of the lame suburban gardens of my youth. I have come to see hydrangeas as one of the most valuable shrubs in the landscape, providing exquisite form and texture along with a long season of flower ornament and fabulous fall color.

Madge was unsettled by a particularly robust mophead, but it’s important in weighing hydrangeas (now is a great time to plant one) to remember that there are at least five species and dozens of varieties to draw on, all of which produce flowers that range from dainty lacecaps to mounded domes to that scary great blue ball.

The oakleaf hydrangeas are the first to flower, but I think of them more as a bold foliage plant than much of a bloomer. Dwarf varieties work well in foundation beds and around patios and in small gardens generally. The leaves turn a deep maroon in October, and they look wonderful next to a late, blue flowering aster or autumn crocus. One of the prettiest oakleafs is a variety named Ellen Huff, with smaller, dwarflike leaves on a full-sized shrub. The youngest leaves turn first in the fall, a vibrant rose-pink.

The lacecaps and mopheads of early summer are varieties or hybrids of two Asian species, and include the brash seaside mopheads but also the lovely and classy daintier hydrangeas. All of them benefit from a little light shade and rich soil to keep them hydrated. This is more important than worrying about soil pH and flower color.

I have long favored Bluebird for its handsome foliage and blue and white lacecaps. Others count on Blue Wave for their elegant lacecap fix. There is a variegated form of the Mariesii lacecap, but that’s just gilding the lily. A hydrangea grower I knew raved over a variety named Beaute Vendomoise, which is a large hydrangea in all regards, and a lacecap with white flowers aging to light blue. My favorite is Preziosa, which has handsome flattened mopheads, like dumplings, that bloom pinkish red and then spend the rest of the season deepening to a blue-crimson. The leaf veining and edging is red.

The latest fad in hydrangea breeding is the mophead that blooms on new growth. This keeps it flowering all season but also overcomes the problem of spring freezes. This class was pioneered with a variety named Endless Summer. Other reblooming varieties have entered the market with much fanfare since. I would hate for people to turn their backs on the superb old varieties. Beauties like Preziosa or Tokyo Delight may only bloom once, but the flowerhead has months of ornament built in. Moreover, they have been bred for all the things you want in a garden plant: vigor, disease resistance and beauty. Some of the novel rebloomers derive from the type of hydrangea you buy in a pot for Mother’s Day. They are greenhouse-grown, pampered and sprayed, and may not be hardy outdoors.

People fret about their lacecaps and mopheads failing to bloom. This is usually the result of giving them a hard prune when they look their twiggy worst in late winter. Leave them alone. The other reason for poor flowering is that they break into growth as early as March and a late frost kills the tender shoots. Keep an eye on the plant and the weather forecast and get ready with an overnight sheet or light blanket once the buds open.

Annabelle, loved by gardeners and florists alike, is a different hydrangea that is untouched by frost and blooms from suckering canes in mid summer, looking good through the fall. I love to see it planted in a big, bold display. Breeders have been working on other versions of this, such as Incrediball and the pink Bella Anna as well as another pink version, Invincibelle Spirit.

The panicle hydrangeas are the latest to flower, the tree-like peegee hydrangea being the classic variety in spite of being gangly and awkward. It works in the back of a large border and in a large garden devoted to cutting flowers. Other panicle varieties are more shrublike and easier to place. Tardiva is a wonderful medium to big shrub for the fall garden. Limelight has rapidly become a favored panicle variety, with handsome, full flowerheads that are tinged green in a six-foot shrub. It is great for cutting, but whether you would want to share the Limelight with Madonna is another matter altogether.

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Photo gallery See more hydrangeas
that Madonna may love. Or not.

Video Find out what to harvest in the vegetable garden and get tips from Adrian Higgins on how to plant garlic and shallots.

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