There’s a Hydrangea for Every Garden!
If there’s one heavily planted shrub that doesn’t get old, it’s the hydrangea.
While most shrubs bloom for a small window of time, hydrangeas usually offer a longer blooming period. The flowers come in pinks, purples, greens, whites, and of course, the coveted blues! The color can be changed on some cultivars with horticultural products, and others change naturally as they age! I even like to leave the blooms on the plant in the fall as the flowers of many cultivars make great dried flowers, providing winter interest. The variance of flower shape and texture is stunning too!
Some hydrangeas like full sun, some appreciate it shadier, and some like it in between There’s a native species. There’s a vining species. Some cultivars get large and make a great specimen or natural hedge. Others stay relatively small, perfectly suited for a front bed or even a container.
Because of this, I say there’s a hydrangea for every garden! Yes, that includes yours.
But hydrangeas are a big subject, and can be overwhelming, especially concerning the cultural requirements and care. So let’s break it down, hydrangeas 101 style!
There are 6 species of hydrangea in commerce in our area. The bigleaf hydrangea, the mountain hydrangea, the panicle hydrangea, the oakleaf hydrangea, the smooth hydrangea, and the climbing hydrangea.
The King of Hydrangeas: The Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)
This is the cliché hydrangea that most people picture in their minds when they hear “hydrangea.” This species, native to Japan, is broken down into two groups: the hortensias and the lacecaps. The hortensias, or mopheads, have the big “balls” of florets. Most of these “balls” are actually clusters of sterile florets that serve as beacons to pollinators, with the small true flowers hiding underneath.
These make a “wow” statement! (Just don’t put soap or cleaning supplies on your mop hydrangea, it wont appreciate it!).
Lacecap flowers are arranged differently, usually with a ring of florets around a larger percentage of less showy but fertile flowers. Lacecaps are sometimes seen as less showy than mopheads but tend to be richer for pollinators. These have a more informal look than the mopheads. One of my favorite Bigleaf Hydrangeas is Proven Winners’ lacecap cultivar “Let’s Dance Starlight.”
Bigleaf hydrangeas like part-sun or dappled sun. Too much sun and they yellow or brown in the summer heat. Too much shade and they struggle to bloom. They appreciate rich soil and even moisture. This plant requires little maintenance when sited properly but if this still sounds laborious, you didn’t think gorgeous blooms would come with zero work, did you!?
Most cultivars of this species, as they say, “bloom on old wood.” What in the world does this mean? This means the flower buds are only present on growth that was produced last year. If you trim too much off your hydrangea, have a late freeze that kills a lot of growth, have deer perpetually nipping away, or buy a nonhardy variety from a box store, chances are you could lose out on a year’s worth of blooms – or 2 or 3. There are some exceptions, however, such as the Endless Summer series, which will bloom on the current year’s growth. That said, put down your sheers. Consider buying a properly sized cultivar and only prune dead wood out in spring time. Not everything has to be trimmed!
The flowers of many bigleaf cultivars can change colors in hues of pink, purple, and blue. The flower color is based on the presence of aluminum in the soil, which is absorbed depending on soil pH. In our area, colors are usually purple-blue as our soils are usually mildly acidic. To change the color to a solid blue, you can apply aluminum sulfate. A lime-based product will turn it a rich pink. These products are best applied a few weeks before blooms open, but please, follow the directions!
Many bigleaf hydrangeas average between three and five feet high and wide but some are smaller, such as Proven Winners Cityline® series which we sell here.
Like the king in chess, the king of hydrangeas has to placed just right for it to be happy. But it is the king nevertheless!
The Best of Two Worlds: Mountain Hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata)
True to the name, this species grows in more mountainous areas of Japan. Naturally, this hydrangea is more cold hardy which means blooms are more reliable every year. Proven Winners offers several cultivars including Tuff Stuff™ and Tiny Tuff Stuff.™
Like a bigleaf hydrangea, the blooms of many cultivars can vary based on the pH of the soil. Similarly, part-sun or dappled sun is best. The blooms on this plant are, to my knowledge, all lacecaps.
So here, you get the look of a Bigleaf Hydrangea but with extra cold hardiness. Isnt that a mountain of coolness!?
Our Regal Native: The Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
This hydrangea is often called the “Annabelle hydrangea” even though “Annabelle” is one of many cultivated varieties of smooth hydrangea. This species is native to Pennsylvania and throughout the east coast. It’s a regal plant, worthy of even the fanciest gardens, yet fits right at home in the informal native garden. I love this plant! The blooms come in greens, whites, and pinks.
Like the bigleaf and mountain hydrangeas, part-sun or part-shade is best. If your spot is on the sunnier side, be sure it’s kept hydrated, and is not baking next to your driveway. This plant blooms on old and new wood, so it’s less fussy in regards to pruning – though keep trimming to a minimum. This is a woodsy plant, not a boxwood!
Smooth hydrangeas come in large and small sizes, with some, such as Proven Winners Incrediball® being larger, and Invincibelle Wee White® being small.
When plants are young, their heavy blooms sometimes cause the stems to flop, so if you see a floppy plant in the nursery, don’t pass it by! With age and sturdier stems, this plant will be a superb looker. Just be sure to not prune this plant too heavily! Despite its delicate appearance, this hydrangea is a zone 3 so cold wont phase it!
The Tough and Beautiful: Panicle Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata)
If you’re looking for a “tough as nails” hydrangea, this is your candidate. If you haven’t had success with the others, try this one!
Panicle hydrangeas are cold hardy like the smooth hydrangea but additionally are full-sun and heat tolerant. Although partial sun is great for this species, full sun is more than acceptable as long as this hydrangea is given the water it needs as it gets established. Once established, this hydrangea will even tolerate dry spells!
Panicle hydrangeas have cone shaped blooms that turn color as they age. Proven Winners’ cultivar “Limelight” begins green, changes to white, and gets tones of pink in the fall. The new cultivar Fire Light® unfolds from white to crimson. This species is especially good for leaving the dried flowers on through the winter. As it’s not fickle with pruning, you can prune to shape in spring if desired – but per usual with shrubbery, prune conservatively and properly, or not at all!
This cultivar comes in dwarf forms such as Little Lime® and Bobo®, intermediate sizes such as Pink Winky® and Quick Fire®, and large cultivars such as “Pee Gee” and “Tardiva.” As the wood is strong on this species, you can buy “tree form” hydrangeas where the intermediate and larger varieties are trained to grow like trees. We carry many hydrangea trees and you can find them in our tree rows!
Despite being tough, giving your panicle hydrangea water and fertile soil will make it very happy.
One day I’d love to have a display garden showcasing every cultivar of this species. We’ll just say it will be the panicle of my career!
The Queen of Hydrangeas: Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
Elegant and beautiful, the oakleaf hydrangea is unlike any other garden plant. The blooms are similar to the panicle hydrangea but the small fertile flowers underneath the showy florets tend to be more pronounced, a great boon for pollinators. Similarly to the panicle hydrangea, the blooms are massive, especially on larger cultivars such as “Alice” and “Snow Queen.” The white flowers change to tones of pink in the fall.
Like chess, the queen has a few more moves up her sleeve than the king. The foliage on this species is by far the most beautiful, resembling that of a textured red oak leaf. The fall color is by far the best, turning hues of red and purple in autumn. And on mature specimens, the exfoliating bark gives texture and winter interest.
Even better, this southeast native hydrangea tends to be both more sun tolerant and shade tolerant than they bigleaf hydrangea. Like the others, make sure the oakleaf hydrangea is given a good start with fertile, moist but well drained soil. Keep pruning to a minimum, but if it’s needed, do so in summer after flowers are beginning to fade. As with the bigleaf hydrangeas, pruning in late fall or early spring may cost you a year’s worth of flowers.
Next time you’re in, check out the three ‘Ruby Slippers’ oakleaf hydrangeas planted by our garden center building!
Master of the Vine Arts: The Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris)
Yes, there is a vining hydrangea! Preferring a partly shady spot, though full shade is acceptable, the climbing hydrangea is a great plant to use as a vertical specimen or accent. It’s especially good for skinny beds where height is desired but width is a limiting factor. This easy-going plant sports massive white lacecap blooms in early to mid summer and beautiful dark green foliage. Variegated cultivars of this plant area available including green and gold and green and white.
Climbing hydrangeas make “feet” that will cling to structures much like Virginia creeper. It can be planted on a trellis, arbor, or even a bare wall. We planted two on our brick retail building last year and they are beginning to climb. The vine will not damage the brick but aerial roots would have to be scraped off if one decided to remove it. No flowers yet, as this plant usually doesn’t begin to flower until its 5 or so years old. So be patient!
As with pruning, be mindful of heavy trimming. Like bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas, prune after flowering is finished, if any is needed. Otherwise, let it go!
There’s Room in the Garden for At Least One
Be sure to check out Proven Winners’ stellar guides and FAQs on hydrangeas!
Every garden should have at least one hydrangea! Whether you have a lot of sun or a lot of shade, or even the tiniest yard, there’s room! A dwarf cultivar can even make a great specimen for a container on a back patio or balcony.
Because hydrangeas are so garden worthy, we carry dozens at peak season. Come in and check out our hydrangea house! Summer is a great time to shop for hydrangeas as now is when many of them are blooming. As always in summer time, don’t forget to water your plants!
Photos provided by Plumline Nursery employee Aaron Grabiak with Aaron Grabiak Garden Photography & Landscape Design and Proven Winners.