Dan Hinkley and Nancy Heckler make a powerful case for these satisfying cultivars.
REMEMBER WHEN selecting a hydrangea was pretty much a choice between pink- and blue-flowering mopheads? In a world where a brand of hydrangea has its own Facebook page and hashtag (#LifeInFullBloom), there are a great many cool hydrangeas just waiting to be discovered.
If, that is, you can get past all the marketing and confusing patent names to pay attention to the garden value of a plant and its specific characteristics. Like the fully double pink flowers on one of Dan Hinkley’s favorite hydrangeas, H. serrata ‘Chiri-san Sue’.
Hinkley is one of the nurserymen responsible for the comeback of hydrangeas, and no one grows them more beautifully than he does beneath a canopy of conifers at Heronswood. “The serratas do want a bit of shade for best effect,” advises Hinkley, adding that when grown in more sun, the leaves color up red in autumn. Hinkley describes the much larger H. aspera ‘Macrophylla’ as “the most dependable and showy of the species, with enormous felted foliage that most people don’t even recognize as a hydrangea when it’s out of flower.”
Gardener extraordinaire Nancy Heckler, whose Indianola garden we’ve featured in this magazine, also favors aspera-type hydrangeas. She calls out the cultivar ‘Sam McDonald’, with intense electric-blue-violet flowers, and H. aspera ‘Kawakamii’, with huge flower heads she describes as “appearing to be tricolor; the centers pale pink, blooming as violet tufts surrounded by bright white florets.” Then there’s a newish aspera grown for its foliage more than flower. ‘Plum Passion’ has dramatically dark purple leaves, ideal for setting off the white-tinged, pale-blue lacecap foliage.
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Most exciting is a highly scented hydrangea, very rare for this genus, with blossoms smelling of jasmine, selected by Hinkley from seed he collected in the Sichuan province. Golden Crane hydrangea (H. angustipetala ‘MonLongShou’) has large snowy white lacecaps and grows to 5 by 5 feet.
Some of the most useful newer hydrangeas are petite enough to grow in pots, or slip into a border. I hope I can get over the discordance of the white flowering H. paniculata ‘Bobo’ having the same name as Seattle’s famous gorilla, but I guess that doesn’t occur to anyone but us natives. The stems are sturdy and the flowers large and plentiful, all on a plant that grows only 30 to 36 inches high. Another popular new dwarf form is the early blooming H. paniculata ‘Little Quick Fire’, with flower cones that age to a deep, rich pink.
I hope Hinkley and Heckler’s affectionate descriptions convince you that hydrangeas not only come in many guises, but are worth their neediness and limitations. In the limitation category is that they’re pretty much reduced to a bunch of bare sticks in winter. But if you leave the blossoms on after the leaves fall, the spent flowers dry in place. They provide height and texture in the winter garden, serve as forage and perches for birds at a time of year when both are needed, and protect the tender new buds through freezing weather.
All hydrangeas need regular watering, and plenty of compost and manure topping off the soil in earliest spring. On the plus side: Hydrangeas bloom for months; the flowers are a mainstay of bouquets; and few shrubs, whether because of nostalgia or just sheer beauty, are quite as satisfying to grow.