06 Dec 2021

Gardening: A new lease of life for the old favourite hydrangea

With Jo McGarry of Caragh Nurseries

Gardening: A new lease of life for the old favourite hydrangea

Beautiful hydrangeas surround an old stone building

Hydrangeas are a group of herbaceous, perennial shrubs with over 75 species and 600 named cultivars that are native to a wide range of regions and countries, including Japan, Asia, Indonesia, the Himalayan mountains, and the Americas.

Another common name for hydrangea is hortensia. Hydrangeas can grow as climbing vines and trees, but are most commonly grown as a shrub. The plants can grow from a foot tall, up to the climbers which can cover over 50ft tall.

The beautiful flowers produced by this plant is what makes these so popular and one of my favourites. They can flower from early spring, but most will start to flower in mid- to late-June and through to the autumn.

The large flowers come in a variety of shapes, colours, and sizes. Their blooms can be pink, blue, red, white, purple and green and they like partial shade through to full sun - although the climber doesn’t mind a shaded north facing wall.

If you, like me, remember hydrangeas from childhood memories, they can strongly evoke a very romantic vision of the garden. As adults, we are falling in love with them all over again, and today we have an even wider selection of different hydrangea varieties our grandmothers never even dreamed of.

Some of the newer hydrangeas grow in colder climates, some are so small they will fit into the perennial border, and others have amazingly large blooms and deep colours.

Hydrangeas will thrive in most soil types. However, the pH of the soil will change the colour of the flowers of some of the varieties, especially the mopheads. Some plants that usually offer pink flowers will appear blue if the soil is acidic. You can change the colour to blue by feeding with a fertiliser low in phosphorous and high in potassium. Alternatively, you can grow your plant in an ericaceous compost in a pot to keep it blue.

To change a plant from blue to pink is trickier. You will need to raise the pH by adding lime. It’s quite common for a plant to produce a few different coloured flowers in the first year of growth.

Few gardeners concern themselves with trying to change the flower colour – but it is interesting to know why plants may vary and how to keep your favourite plants the colours that you wish, should you wish.

A moist, well-drained soil in a position of dappled shaded is ideal. Avoid south-facing positions, especially if the soil is very dry. For a north-facing wall, grow the reliable climber Hydrangea Pietiolaris.

If you want to grow your hydrangeas into more of a hedge-like effect then some of the larger flowering mophead varieties like Hydrangea Annabelle work better.

The name hydrangea comes from the Greek words “hydor” meaning water and “angos” meaning vessel, which roughly translates to water barrel.

This is due to the fact that hydrangeas are notorious for needing lots of water. The name, Hortensia, is a Latin version of the French word Hortense.

My memories of hydrangeas are not from my grandmother's garden - mine lived in the North of England in a row of terraces (yes, very akin to Coronation St) with only a cobbled yard and a couple of pots.

We did, however, spend many a holiday in Brittany and down the west coast of France and there was where my love of hydrangeas started.

There are many customs from around the world surrounding hydrangeas;According to a Japanese legend, the emperor gave hydrangeas to the family of a girl he loved to show how much he cared for her.

In the Victorian era, hydrangeas represent boastfulness, bragging and vanity. Especially white hydrangeas. In the United States, hydrangeas are used for fourth wedding anniversaries - it beats wood or paper!

My love of hydrangeas continues and my own garden has a good selection of different ones. Although I love the traditional mop heads, I am finding the paniculata (cone head) varieties easier to grow - and in my own garden I don’t often get the time to treat them quite as I should, especially in busy years like this one.

I have a climbing Hydrangea on a wall near my front door. I have a row of mixed hydrangeas which I planted because I couldn’t decide which one I love the most.

It includes the trusty and very stylish Annabelle, Sundae Fraise with its confectionary-like pink into white blooms, reminding me of a Squashy! It also has the wonderful blue Ayesha, the cool green-white of Limelight and, to top it all off, the Merveille Sanguine with its purple tinged leaves and dark Merlot blooms. It is one which I think is just stunning, it probably doesn’t go with the rest quite so well but I adore it too much to leave it out. It's smaller than the others and a little less reliable - but worth all that.

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