By Mel Bellar
It is full-blown Fall by the time you are reading this. Even as I write, the days are getting cooler and we have had some frosts. The light is changing, and I am getting excited about my favorite time of the year. I could wax on endlessly about my love of Autumn in the Catskills, but I promised you more hydrangeas! Ha! you may not be salivating at another 800 words about hydrangeas, but I think it is justified. Hydrangeas are probably the most useful, reliable, and beautiful category of shrubs we can utilize in the landscape and everyone should have some or many.
Let’s start with the blue ones and get them out of the way first. The blue round-ball ones are all Hydranga marcophylla and they may survive here, but they rarely bloom. They are not that hardy and because they bloom on last year’s wood, we often have a late freeze that (quite literally)“nips them in the bud.” This phenomenon occurs in other shrubs and trees like magnolias, lilacs and even apples occasionally, but the blue hydrangeas are especially at risk. The nursery industry has been trying to find ways around this for years and there is a series of hydrangeas, the Endless Summer series, that bloom on old and new wood. They are supposed to provide a floral display, even in colder climates. However, my landscape designer colleagues and I refer to these Endless Summer hydrangeas as the Endless Bummer. Nurseries sell, and even promote them because folks want them. But sadly, they are usually terribly disappointed. Plus, to me, the flowers never look nice and their color is not really a satisfying blue (or pink.) I will not plant them for clients. Also, just to be a super curmudgeon, even though they are beautiful, I think blue hydrangeas just look wrong in the Catskills. Coming from the south I still associate them with “little old lady” gardens (and I am 69 years old! ☺) and funerals. But I do think they look outstanding on Cape Cod and coastal communities.
The panicle hydrangeas or Hydrangea paniculatas offer the largest array of options and there is pretty much a variety for every occasion these days. However, they do not come in blue. They come in hues from white and pink to green and all ultimately ripen into different shades of dusty pink. The classic paniculata in the Catskills is the “Peegee” which usually comes as a standard, meaning it has a single main trunk with branches starting at least a couple of feet off the ground. Peegees are great but you can hardly find one at a nursery in 2020. They are, I guess, old-fashioned and outdated. There are dozens of new varieties and some that have been around for a while. I tend to choose paniculatas based on their bloom time and size, and I prefer the less flashy ones.
The “Quickfire” cultivar is amazing because it is the earliest paniculata to bloom, hence the name. It starts with a rosy pinkish white flower with a fairly loose petal structure and gets to be a very dark pink by the end of the season. It is in the 4 to 6 foot size range, but there was a new dwarf, Little Quickfire, that was introduced in the past 5 years, that works well in smaller places maxing out at 4 feet. After Quickfire there are many other panicle hydrangeas ready to bloom. Limelight is the most common and a good choice. This variety starts out with whitish green, more tightly clustered petals that can get pretty dense. They also turn a dusty pink in the Fall before they ultimately become a light to dark tan. Limelight hydrangeas can get quite large and sometimes are a bit unruly, with heavy flower heads that can bend the limbs and look floppy. However, there is a dwarf variety called Little Lime that is half as big and better behaved. The last paniculata to bloom is a beauty, appropriately named Hydrangea paniculata “Tardiva” (like tardy diva.) It is quite white with a beautiful loose flower structure; it gets very large, yet it doesn’t flop. The blooms fade to a creamy dark white and look great dried on the branches all winter as do all of the panicle hydrangeas.
“Bobo” is a white dwarf variety that I really like. It has a nice form and coloration. The tree form pandiculates (like the old Peegee) are very useful. Try using them like a small tree as accents in important places. The tree form of the “Pink Diamond” is my personal favorite, but there are versions of most of the full-sized paniculatas including Limelight and Quickfire.
The climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea petiolaris, is a wonderful addition to a stone wall or fence. I love them, but you must be extremely patient! They can take 5 to 10 years to really take off and start blooming.
Climate change has already emboldened me to plant numerous plants that I wouldn’t have gambled my money and enthusiasm on in the first decade of this century, and I still haven’t ventured to try an oakleaf hydrangea. However, the Hydrangea quercifolia is looking more like a possibility as the winters roll by. I had a client with an oakleaf hydrangea in their front yard in New Kingston that I have watched struggle with Winter die-back for years, but it has been looking convincingly better recently. It is a magnificent plant, native to the southeastern US, and has beautiful flowers and foliage. I look forward to the additional hydrangea in my garden.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~