Happy-making hydrangeas

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
August 2022

Steffie Shields discusses a shrub that can provoke strong reactions.

Hydrangeas are effective, long-flowering, and low maintenance shrubs that often help to soften areas of hard landscaping. They are versatile and will work at the front of a border or in a large pot on the patio. Why then, have they fallen out of fashion over recent years?

I suspect that the bad press they have gotten at times stems from their perceived lack of perfume. Their unique shapes do not sit well with popular, upright prairie planting and grasses, nor with relaxed swathes of meadow planting beloved by the wildflower lobby.

Hydrangeas are like Marmite. I remember a major Gardens Trust conference dinner in Cornwall, one September many moons ago. The keynote speaker, who shall remain nameless, began his after-dinner speech by exclaiming: “Don’t you just HATE hydrangeas?!” Perhaps this outburst was intended to wake us up. The look of shocked horror on everyone’s faces was quite something.

the late 19th century/early 20th century, when some of the earliest varieties were first brought to Europe from Asia, this has been a county long associated with hydrangea growing. Great collections appear in grand historic gardens all around the county. Now ubiquitous in seaside towns and villages and country cottage gardens, hydrangeas are virtually regarded as the national flower of Cornwall.

In a couple of decades spent exploring Lincolnshire gardens, I cannot think of many gardens that have featured a hydrangea collection. Only two historic gardens come to mind. When the Queen’s Champion, Colonel John Dymoke, and his wife Sue, hosted a Millennium Plant Fair at Scrivelsby Court, I recall the magnificent, deep pink hydrangea bushes beside the approach drive and massed along the south edge of the ages-old moat. Later, visiting Doddington Hall, the more shaded north side of the house near the front door was dressed with a pale pink hydrangea backdrop to a stately pair of topiary unicorns.

After a memorable visit to Crûg Farm Plants, a specialist nursery on the coast of North Wales, I came away with my first lace-cap, Hydrangea serrata ‘Mauvette’. Experienced plant-hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones inspired me with under-storey planting in their magical, exotic woodland garden. Imagine the thrill when its two first blooms appeared the next spring, but then one naughty sheep broke in. The two flowerheads made a perfect lunch. Nothing else was touched. ‘Mauvette’ never recovered from the shock.

When the late plant expert Gwen Grantham moved to Woodhall Spa, she introduced me to several varieties which do well in light shade in wooded areas but also full sun. Gwen sourced her hydrangeas from the renowned Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall, where she also found many exotic Banksian plants from Australasia appropriate for the Sir Joseph Banks Society garden in Horncastle. She introduced me to Hydrangea quercifolia – the easy to identify oak-leaved hydrangea native to the south-eastern United States. Its cream flowers in conical panicles with numerous large florets provide a long-lasting show beginning in late spring. Come autumn, its handsome leaves change colour, much like the sensational American red oak, from orange through red to mahogany.

More recently, I spotted H. quercifolia in amongst specimen bushes in a superb hydrangea collection planted in a mostly white crescent border partly shaded by stone-walling and a tall tree festooned in rambling roses at the Old House in Welbourn. Stephanie and David Close open their garden regularly for the National Garden Scheme. H. quercifolia will grow unprotected in cooler areas than mopheads and lace-caps but require sunny, hot summers to bloom well. Surprisingly, unlike most other sorts, this variety does not flourish in continuously moist or boggy ground. Stephanie has been more successful than me! Oh dear, I remember frequently drenching mine in the hope for revival, all to no avail.

A couple of more modern cultivars feature in Stephanie’s collection, also supplied by Burncoose. The striking H. ‘Love you Kiss’ in early summer has new growth with a noticeable reddish tinge, and later the white florets are edged with lipstick-red with hints of orange. At first glance H. macrophylla ‘Magical Flamenco’ is similar. However, it has noticeably more florets, each bract with picoted red edges that are ruffled, like a Spanish dancer’s skirt.

I have had some success with a vigorous clinging, semi-evergreen climbing white hydrangea, H. anomala. Slow to get going, several patient years have now been rewarded. The ovate, coarsely-toothed foliage effectively hides some unsightly drain piping on a north-east wall, ornamented with plentiful loose clusters of small, greenish-white flowers in the middle, surrounded by impressive large white florets. Be warned, this climber can grow to 12 metres high, but requires minimal care, just the occasional prune.

My growing collection heralds a new chapter for our garden. I write at the end of June, H. serrata ‘Blueberry Cheesecake’ is beginning to flower, a present last summer from my daughter who lives in Florida. She could not resist the name! Yet even more than its showy floating, flat lace-cap flowers, I love how its autumn foliage coloured through various reds to fading pink in painterly fashion. The serrata variety are native to the mountains of Japan and high woodland parts of South Korea. H. serrata ‘Bluebird’ produces ‘pinkish purplish’ flowers on alkaline soils but in acid soils its flowers will appear a striking blue.

Gabrielle also spoiled me with a magnificent mop! H. macrophylla ‘Bela Branco’ grown by Millais Nursery, a specialist hydrangea nursery in Norfolk, has massive, pure white flowers from June to August. I hope this settles in after its cross-county border move. It will require a thinning out prune after flowering.

Gwen Grantham’s daughter, garden designer Nikki Applewhite, gifted me H. aborescens ‘Annabelle’, a much admired North American shrub. She is safely tucked in a border facing south and west in partial shade and some sunshine. Its coloured bracts in place of petals are like amazing white balls, blooms that bring texture and sculptural form to any white border amongst other contrasting foliage plants. Fingers firmly crossed, if Annabelle flourishes, it will be ideal to use in flower arrangements, whether fresh or dried, just like H. paniculata ‘Limelight’, beloved as a filler by modern florists with its lime-green hues.

With some exciting new and innovative breeding, hydrangeas are enjoying ever- increasing popularity. The word stems from the Greek for water (hydros) and jar (angos) as the plant’s shape is like an ancient water pitcher. Most do need constant moisture to stay healthy and blooming, just like us. They are invaluable for filling the gap when peonies and roses have gone over, and before gay summer borders begin to strut their stuff. Hydrangeas have meanings that range widely from heartfelt emotion to gratitude to boastfulness – as in this article! They evoke memories with their strong, comforting presence, as if enveloping some areas of the garden in cuddles.

Congratulations to Crowders Nurseries, the nationally renowned Lincolnshire wholesale grower with a distinguished history going back over a hundred years. They have won the national ‘Trade Nursery of the Year’ award for the second year running – a fantastic achievement. I wonder if they still supply Wimbledon tennis with turf and hydrangeas?

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.