Hydrangeas, Hydrangeas, Hydrangeas by Donatella de Rosa
As seasons change from one to the next, so does the garden along with them. The surge of new life in spring, the verdant green and lush colors in summer and fall’s vibrant splash as the garden growth slowly ebbs toward winter’s dormancy, all add to the full gardening experience. Whether you’re an active participant, or an appreciative observer, each season delights or subdues our senses. Watching as my garden changes, grows, goes dormant and sometimes dies, never finds me indifferent. Gardens always excite and often inspire reflection, and simple contentment.
Each season has a plant, or group of plants—flowering bulbs and peonies in spring, coneflowers and lilies in summer, autumn crocus and toad lilies in fall—that stands out as its most prolific symbol. These are the plants that one eagerly awaits as a harbinger of that season’s climax. In late winter-early spring, the hellebores begin to bud. The large leathery leaves stand guard above the blooms as they demurely open, their petals nodding as if to say, yes, there’s more to come. In late summer the diaphanous petals of Japanese anenomes begin to open, hovering above the now fading summer blooms. There are some plants whose glory has the amazing capacity to span more than one season, and of those plants the hydrangeas stand out with the most diverse and enduring blooms.
There are more than seventy species of hydrangea, and all are stunning, some dramatic in their varied displays of color and form. The drifts of snow white, pink or blue lacecaps against deep green leaves, or the conical, sometimes pendulous clusters of the Hydrangea paniculata, the more stately, reserved clusters of the Hydrangea petioralis as it climbs a rock wall or tumbles down a stone embankment, the elegant tree hydrangeas [peegee] and the enormous clusters of fertile and sterile flowers of the oakleaf hydrangea [native to the northeast, most species are native to Asia], as they rest against its equally enormous leaves—all have unique attributes that never cease to amaze and delight.
These popular ornamental plants are grown for their large and varied flowerheads, the Hydrangea machrophylla being by far the most common with over six hundred named cultivars. Both the mophead hydrangeas and the lacecaps fit under this species.
Hydrangeas have some interesting properties, the most sinister being moderate toxicity if eaten. All of its parts contain cyanogenic glycosides—cyanide—and despite the danger of illness or even death, the Hydrangea paniculata is reportedly smoked as an intoxicant. The Japanese ama-cha—meaning sweet tea—is an herbal tea made from the Hydrangea serrata, whose leaves contain the sweet tasting substance phyllodulcin. In Japan, ama-cha is used for Kan-butsu-e—the Buddha bathing ceremony—in April on the day thought to be Buddha’s birthday. The tea is poured over a statue of Buddha and served to those attending the ceremony. Ama-cha is a substitute for Amrita [the beverage of immortality], that according to legend, nine dragons poured over Buddha on the day of his birth. Pink hydrangeas are popular everywhere, but especially in Asia where they have several symbolic meanings, the most poetic being, “You are the beat of my heart.” The celebrated Asian florist Tan Jun Yong was quoted as saying, “The delicate blush of the petals reminds me of a beating heart, while the size could only match the heart of the sender!”
Some Hydrangea species:
Hydrangea macrophylla, under which both mophead and lacecap flowerheads fall. Mopheads have large round flowerheads resembling huge pom-poms consisting of sterile flowers. Lacecaps bear round, flat flowerheads with a center core of subdued, fertile flowers surrounded by outer rings of showy, sterile flowers. These can be a creamy white, but are usually shades of pink or blue.
Hydrangea arborescens, the best known, ‘Annabelle’, is a stunning white hydrangea often producing flowerheads over ten inches in diameter.
Hydrangea quercifolia [oakleaf hydrangeas], is a dramatic, white-blooming shrub prized for its four seasons of interest. The conical flowerheads of both sterile and fertile flowers start out green and mature to a crisp white. As the season progresses, the flowers begin to blush pink at the edges, and by fall turn a deepening bronze that lingers for several weeks until the flowers turn brown. The leaves become a flaming bronzered before they drop for the winter, only to reveal a papery pale bark peeling away to expose shades of surprising and lovely cinnamon.
Hydrangea paniculata, has white conical shaped blooms that develop a wonderful shade of pink as they age, extending their beauty well into fall. Paniculatas can grow to be more than ten feet tall and the Peegee variety is often pruned to form the elegant tree hydrangea.
Hydrangea anomala, subsp. petiolaris, is a climbing hydrangea that can grow to eighty feet. It has white/near-white blooms resembling a lacecap flowerhead with small deep green leaves and is attractive to bees, butterflies and birds.