Generally, when folks find out what I do for a living, among the first questions asked is “What is your favorite plant?” Being somewhat of a plant nerd, that can be a tough question to answer! However, I usually circle back to the same answer, “Hydrangea”. There are many reasons my fellow gardeners and I love hydrangeas. It’s undeniable that few plants conjure more fond memories of summers gone by or cause more impulse purchasing at nurseries than a hydrangea in full, billowy bloom. Additionally, few specimen shrubs give more floral firepower and ask so little of the gardener in return. My own love affair with hydrangea stems from my first propagation experience, a softwood cutting of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ (taken with the help of someone who knew a lot more about what they were doing than I did) that, seemingly magically, sprouted roots in a makeshift greenhouse, a cypress box with an old, crusty, sliding glass door. Hydrangeas hooked me. However, even with all of those attributes to its name, Hydrangea, as a genus, remains underappreciated and underutilized in modern landscapes. Let’s shed some light on the two primary reasons for gardeners’ failure and frustration with hydrangeas in the landscape and highlight some of the best Hydrangea species and cultivars to look for at the nursery!
First, hydrangea has a reputation as being a high water user. As the name (hydrangea comes from “hydor”, which is Greek for water) might suggest, hydrangeas are indeed water sensitive. However, this does not necessarily mean they require more or less water than other plants, rather they simply betray drought quicker than most other plants. This feature makes hydrangea particularly useful in the landscape as an indicator plant. As a general rule, hydrangeas (particularly those planted in too much sun) wilt in the afternoon heat; this is totally normal. However, if the plants remain wilted the next morning, it is an indicator to the gardener that irrigation is required! If they don’t get irrigation soon after telling you they need it, the plants may begin to decline. Rather than being viewed as a drawback, think of this feature as an early warning system. Name another plant that looks out for us gardeners like that!
The second primary reason people fail with hydrandea is improper site selection. Attempting to grow hydrangea in full sun in Florida leads to less than spectacular results. All species of hydrangeas are most happy when sited to receive at least some afternoon shade, if not filtered shade throughout the entire day. Exposure to blistering afternoon sun is problematic and results in increased wilting from heat stress, increased irrigation requirements and “bleached” flower coloration. Remember, there are fewer frustrating things than growing the right plant in the wrong place!
Now that you know how not to fail with hydrangeas, it’s time to select the proper plant for your property! Three primary species perform noticeably better here than the rest of their kin and deserve the gardener’s consideration in Northwest Florida: H. macrophylla (Bigleaf Hydrangea), H. quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea), and H. paniculata (Panicle Hydrangea).
H. macrophylla, the old-fashioned hydrangea everyone’s grandmother grew, is truly one of the standouts in the shady, Southern landscape and commands attention when in flower. Sporting giant “mopheads” of inflorescences in gorgeous hues of blue (or pink, depending on soil pH), H. macrophylla is an extremely low maintenance plant, requiring only periodic irrigation and infrequent fertilizer; H. macrophylla even tolerates salt spray and can be grown on the Gulf Coast! By far, the greatest percentage of questions I receive concerning H. macrophylla involve plants not flowering because of pruning at the wrong time of year. For best flowering results, time pruning of once-blooming traditional cultivars like ‘Nikko Blue’ soon after flowering is finished in late summer. These plants set flower buds on the previous season’s wood; pruning older cultivars in the fall or winter may rejuvenate the plant but will prevent flowering the next year! Fortunately, over the last twenty years, advances in Hydrangea breeding have given gardeners the option of planting remontant cultivars that bloom on current season’s wood. Commonly sold remontant cultivars like ‘Endless Summer’, ‘Penny Mac’, ‘Bloomstruck’, and ‘All Summer Beauty’ have an early summer flower display like the traditional types but then continue to flower periodically throughout the rest of the summer! Even better, they may be pruned at any time without worry of damaging the next season’s flower show!
Those looking to diversify their hydrangea collection should next look to the native Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia). The Oakleaf Hydrangea is a Florida native, growing wild on the steep, shady ravines along the northern end of the Apalachicola River. If the plants never flowered, the Oakleaf would be worth planting; its massive leaves, oak-shaped as the name suggests, can grow up to a foot in length and provide some of the best fall foliage color available to Floridians. However, the real show, as with all hydrangea species, are the flowers. This species flaunts 8”-10” white, panicle shaped flowers that are held elegantly above the coarsely textured foliage. In addition to these features, Oakleaf Hydrangeas couldn’t be easier to grow; obtaining heights up to 10’ and asking very little of the gardener other than adequate irrigation and some shade in the heat of the day! Look for the author’s favorite cultivars: ‘Alice’, ‘Semmes Beauty’, and ‘Snowflake’. Each of these cultivars and selections of the common species H. quercifolia perform very well in Northwest Florida.
Finally, the newest hydrangea species introduced to Florida gardens, H. paniculata, has made significant inroads in the landscape industry over the last decade. Primarily grown as the cultivar ‘Limelight’, H. paniculata overcomes some of the weaknesses of the two aforementioned species, namely it tolerates full-sun and persists on much less water, making it a potentially more sustainable plant for many landscapes. This plant, like the remontant H. macrophylla cultivars, blooms on new wood and even seems to enjoy a hard pruning each winter; plants pruned this way seem to be more vigorous the next season and produce larger greenish-white flower panicles than unpruned specimens. Though it is a relative newcomer, H. paniculata, particularly ‘Limelight’, is a worthy addition to any landscape.
As you can see, there is a hydrangea for every yard and no true Southern landscape is complete without a few. When perusing your local garden center this summer, look for the selections and species mentioned above, plant properly, and enjoy the ensuing annual flower show for many years into the future! Who knows, you may be hooked by hydrangeas as I once was!