A Star That Deserves Protection From the Cold

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 3, 2008

The four species of hydrangea in my garden all burst into leaf about two weeks ago, stirring anticipation of their enduring floral display, which begins with the climbing hydrangea in May.

The slow unfurling of the leaf is also a reminder that this is the most perilous time for the most popular of the hydrangeas, the mophead and lacecap varieties of the bigleaf hydrangea. If we get a late frost in mid-April, as we did last year, this tender growth will be beaten back, with the loss of most of the flower show in June and July. So keep an eye on the weather forecast. If you cover only one plant with sacking or a blanket, make it the hydrangea.

We have mentioned before two new varieties that get around this problem, Endless Summer and Blushing Bride, which break all the bigleaf hydrangea rules by flowering on new growth. Most varieties bloom from buds that develop the previous summer, so winterkill, late frost or a poorly timed pruning (i.e., now) will all result in loss of blooms.

Endless Summer is a classic pink mophead. I prefer the elegance of Blushing Bride, its creamy, pink-tinged blooms appearing continuously from May to November. Both, however, are just the start of the reinvented hydrangea. Bailey Nurseries, which developed them, is planning the introduction next year of the first reblooming lacecap, a variety named Twist-n-Shout.

Another line of reblooming hydrangeas, developed by a Japanese breeder (and rock guitarist) named Ryoji Irie, is finding its way to garden centers in the United States. Marketed as Forever & Ever hydrangeas, the series currently consists of seven varieties developed for color and form.

David Wilson, who represents one of the licensed growers, Overdevest Nurseries in Bridgeton, N.J., said four of the Forever & Ever varieties have done particularly well in growing trials: Red, Pink, Blue Heaven and Together. Typically, mopheads grow blue in acidic soil and pink in alkaline ones, with a violet hue when soils are slightly acidic, which they tend to be in our region. He said Blue Heaven responds well to acidic soil amendments. "If you've never been able to grow blue hydrangeas, this is the one to try," he said. Together has unusual double flowers in pink and lime green.

All these reblooming varieties perform better if you remove the flowers when they begin to fade.

Hydrangea blooms last so long because the mopheads don't consist of true petals; rather, they are the calyxes of sterile flowers. Lacecaps, by contrast, consist of the large sterile flowers surrounding a dome of tiny fertile flowers.

These reblooming hydrangeas are a good thing: It is cheering to see fresh mopheads in September and October and good to know that a freeze won't spoil the show. And these varieties are bound to ensure a healthy future for one of the sweetest shrubs in the garden. I hope, though, that we won't turn our backs on some of the older varieties, which were selected not for their quirky flowering habit but for the beauty of their flower, leaf and overall form.

Next month, I plan to remove three viburnums that have grown too leggy next to a north-facing wall and replace them with some lacecap hydrangeas. Thumbing through the catalogues and books, I'm spoiled for choice. The classic lacecap Blue Bird is one of my favorites, though I am being pulled to pictures of other blue lacecaps, Aigaku, Belzonii and Forget Me Not.

Elsewhere on the north bed, I have a Hydrangea aspera that has been limping along for a decade. It is not really hardy here, but every time I think it's dead, it sprouts the odd branch or two, and it offers a scant lacecap bloom sometimes. I saw a magnificent specimen in Europe last summer and vowed I would put mine out of its misery. The leaves are impressive -- large and pointed, and they look and feel like velvet. I keep hoping global warming will bring it along, but maybe it's time to cut bait.

The climbing hydrangea, on the east wall, is going gangbusters. This is a terrific self-supporting vine for people with a bit of patience. It takes six years to flower, and then the white lacecaps multiply in each subsequent year. I planted it 11 years ago, and it is now up to the eaves, 18 feet above ground. In winter, the bark is orange, flaking and quite stunning. Like all hydrangeas, it likes moisture, detests dry soil and prefers shielding from the afternoon sun. It flowers for a month in May, and then the lacecaps slowly fade and wither. This is agreeable enough.

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