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Timeless Hydrangea

I have this funny saying I have started using when I see something I want others to notice: “For the love of hydrangeas, would you look at that.”

It is true that gardeners and nongardeners alike are all in love with hydrangeas. White ones, pink ones, blue ones, tall ones, or short ones, it doesn’t matter—as long as they are blooming, we all want them. I have even had people ask me for a hydrangea when they didn’t really even know what it was, except that everyone was talking about them.

Sterile and fertile flowers
Hydrangeas are indeed the hot plant for the garden, but there are a few things about them that would be helpful to know before you make your selection. There are two types of flowers present on hydrangeas: sterile and fertile. The sterile flowers are typically the large showy flowers, and the showy part is in fact not a petal at all but a bract or sepal. Sterile flowers do not have all the parts necessary to produce seed. The fertile flowers are much smaller, considerably less showy, slightly more frilly or fluffy, and contain all the parts necessary to produce seed.

Hydrangea macrophylla, Big Leaf hydrangea, is certainly the most popular and recognizable of the hydrangeas. This large group of hydrangeas is one of several that have two distinct styles of flowers: mophead and lacecap within its group. The majority of the flowers on a mophead hydrangea are going to be the showy sterile ones, but you will find a few fertile flowers intermingled. The lacecap flower has both sterile and fertile flowers, with dramatically fewer sterile and many more fertile flowers. This lacecap-style flower has a beautiful, somewhat flatter bloom, and much more of a layered effect than the round, showy mophead flower.

There is one more main flower style found on hydrangeas, the panicle flower. This style flower is pointy in shape and the majority of its flowers are sterile, but with more fertile flowers than the mophead types. Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf hydrangea, and Hydrangea paniculata, Panicle or Tree Form hydrangea, fall into this category.

Growing conditions
The popularity of hydrangeas may be due in part to the fact that the bloom season seems so long in comparison to other flowering shrubs. With most species having more sterile flowers than fertile ones, the show is extended. Sterile flowers cannot be pollinated and remain intact, changing color gradually, while seed production on the pollinated fertile flowers begins. The hydrangea varieties with flowers that are mainly sterile appear to be flowering for a much longer period, and have traditionally been the more popular choice.

The world of hydrangeas can be very confusing if you are not sure which hydrangea you have. Each hydrangea species is unique to some degree, but there are many common factors for the care of the different species. The majority should be grown in part shade and prefer soil that is deep, rich, and moist but well-drained.

My shallow-soiled, dry garden is not the best location for most hydrangeas, but I have been able to grow an Oak Leaf hydrangea quite successfully in my front garden with a little extra watering in the summer. I am trying out the new highly marketed Endless Summer hydrangea in my back garden, but so far not much has happened. I am teetering between sun and shade, but my garden is so dry that even though I water this hydrangea twice as much as everything else, it seems to be just sitting there.

An important fact to remember with any hydrangea is that you must give them time to establish before really evaluating them. A minimum of three years is necessary, sometimes more.

Soil pH factor
I am often asked why a hydrangea that was blue when they bought it turned pink after planting. I cover the soil pH issues with hydrangea in the May “Garden Almanac” online Web article at www.KentuckyLiving.com (click on Home & Garden, then Garden Almanac). Often I find that if you just leave them alone and let them grow, after a few years once they are established they will turn back to the original blue, if not a more electric version, depending on actual soil pH and variety. If you need to change the soil pH to a more acid level, you can do it any time, and it is effective almost immediately so you can save yourself a little work and money if you are just patient in the beginning.

Timeless and trendy garden
It’s tough to maintain a garden that is always trendy. Plants go in and out of fashion quickly, and they can’t grow and mature to their full beauty quite so quickly. Your best bet is to plant a garden that is timeless with the plants that you love. The plants that were in style 15 to 20 years ago are in style again.

Have a gardening question?
Go online to www.KentuckyLiving.com, click on Home & Garden on the left, and then on “Ask The Gardener” link.

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