There were times in my younger life when I promised myself that I would never buy a Japanese car (tinny), would avoid electric pencil sharpeners (decadent) and would never, ever plant marigolds or associate with anyone who did (vulgar).
You know what’s coming: I have owned several Hondas and a Nissan over the years — they’re fine conveyances. A sturdy electric pencil sharpener is now my eager desk buddy. And the other day I found myself on my knees sowing marigold seeds. I watch the bare ground for signs of life with all the pride and anticipation of a robin incubating her clutch.
What changed? Not just my tastes, but something deeper. As you accumulate knowledge, you also amass context. Your frame of reference alters, and you value previously unperceived qualities. This is particularly true in the garden, where plants you once thought common or old hat are seen for their virtues.
Just to be clear, I still have an aversion to marigolds; there is something stiff and coarse about them, and their fragrance is sour. But there are certain exceptional varieties that work, in the right setting. Looking for a heat-tolerant summer annual, and knowing that zinnias would get too tall for the space, I remembered a little pouch of seeds sent to me over the winter by the Burpee catalogue of a new, bicolored yellow-rose variety named Strawberry Blonde. We’ll give it a go.
Sometimes my reversal is not so conditional. We are coming into the season of the hydrangea, a plant I now anticipate with as much joy as roses and perhaps more. This wasn’t always the case: I once saw the hydrangea as resolutely staid and predictable, a dull plant for dull people. In the neighborhood where I lived as a boy, the rowhouses had small gardens framed with low brick walls, and every third house or so had a blessed mophead hydrangea. The shrub was too big for the garden, and the bloom was too big for the shrub. The long-flowering season coincided exactly, as I recall, with the six-week summer furlough from school. It all seemed so cruel.
It takes years for a gardener to realize that flowers are not responsible for the associations we give them. Slowly, I came to see the value of hydrangeas. Their long flowering is a boon, of course; the serrated foliage has its own subtle beauty; and the blooms, as they dry and change color, provide ornament late into the season. Not least, hydrangeas, being layered and broad without getting too high, provide invaluable green structure to the garden.
I am speaking of the garden varieties of the Asian Hydrangea macrophylla and H. serrata, which give us flowers that are generally balls or lacecaps. I can still do without the oversize mopheads, but ones the size of, say, from dumplings to softballs have a definite allure. My favorite may be Preziosa, with small pink mopheads that age to mauve and then plum. Another one I like is Beaute Vendomoise, a big six-footer with full, white lacecaps tinged blue in acid soil.
Breeders have worked hard in recent years to introduce reblooming hydrangeas, a peculiarity that overcomes their biggest frailty, the destruction of flowering buds by a harsh winter, a problem in the North, or freeze damage to early spring growth, the issue in the South. The second phenomenon occurred this year in the Mid-Atlantic, and there will be a loss of display this June.
I have a few rebloomers that are set to bloom prodigiously and seem to have dodged the freeze bullet. By a hillside path, I have planted a variety named Lady in Red, which in spite of its name is a light blue lacecap that ages to burgundy. The stems and leaf veining are distinctly red, very handsome.
This is my basic recipe for using such hydrangeas: Plant three about five feet apart (no closer) in an area that will get some afternoon shade. Water them well the first two summers and in periods of drought, and be patient. After five years, they form an effective massing, which can be used to frame a corner, soften the base of trees or provide screening around a patio. My little threesome is now a clump five feet high and 12 feet across.
The flowering of these Asian varieties is heralded by the white panicles of the native oakleaf hydrangea, now in its full glory. The imported hydrangeas have long held sway in garden circles, but the native shrub — while certainly not rare — deserves to be used much more.
The oakleaf hydrangea is not a perfect plant; few are. It is foremost a large shrub, growing to 10 feet high and more in breadth, and the person who plants it right next to a path will come to regret it. It doesn’t lend itself to pruning, but old, leggy branches can be removed after flowering. The other drawback is that the flower panicles are so large and heavy that they stick out rather than up.
These peccadillos are forgiven for the oakleaf’s persistent ornament. The autumn leaf color gyrates to a deep burgundy, and in winter the peeling light-cinnamon-colored bark is revealed.
It is the strangeness of the bloom that makes hydrangeas in general so decorative and long-flowering. With a lacecap, for instance, the central dome is of tiny fertile florets, surrounded by a necklace of larger flower parts called sepals. They are the showy, enduring components. In an oakleaf hydrangea, the sepals form a large cone enveloping the fertile flowers, each resembling a minute sputnik.
Improved varieties are worth seeking out and include Alice, Snowflake and Snow Queen.
Happily, varieties have been developed to fit into small gardens, reaching only half or a third the size of the species. Pee Wee grows to about 4 by 6 feet; Ruby Slippers reaches about 4 by 5 feet at maturity; Munchkin grows to just 3 by 4½ feet at maturity.
Queen of Hearts is a medium-size shrub smaller and more compact than the species and selected for its profusion of blooms and slightly later flowering period. The flowers age to a deep pink. If you can’t find these varieties, a good independent retail nursery should be able to order one for you.
Jetstream is another new, medium-size variety selected for its dense, compact habit and stems that hold the flower panicles upright. I have just planted a baby plant of it, well away from the marigolds.