I have eight hydrangeas in the garden, a modest enough number but given their relatively large size in my small garden, enough. I rate them highly as ornamental plants, producing a fine display of bloom for a couple of months in June and July.
Not one is a typical mop headed Hydrangea macrophylla, not because I have anything against them but they are very common and I have only to look out the window to see two large bushes covered in flowers in someone else’s garden. It appeals to me to have something different. A number of less commonly encountered varieties have come my way and filled the space, so that’s what I have.
In nursery days it was always the case that some plants were on the way up while others were on the way down. It could be very frustrating if a trend happened very quickly and we either couldn’t produce stuff quickly enough to satisfy demand or conversely, were left with a big surplus when demand for something went over a cliff.
Hydrangeas started to become more popular in the first decade of the 2000’s if I recall correctly, with interest building quite steadily and being sustained for a good few years. That was quite unusual and it gave us the opportunity to develop a really interesting range. The majority of the hydrangeas that we sold were bought in as young plants in 9cm pots and grown on for a season usually in 3L pots.
Almost all these liners came from New Place Nurseries in Sussex or Pépinières Minier, in France. As specialist propagators they picked up on the increasing interest in Hydrangeas and started developing their own ranges and I tried to be adventurous with getting new varieties, even though they were an unknown for us as growers and the same for customers. Provided they could be brought into flower, selling them was rarely a problem.
Another wholesaler that we dealt with was a local nursery that grew a wide range of unusual plants, a good deal of it under contract to a well known retail nursery up country. He would from time to time have a few extras which he would put on his availability list in very small numbers, sometimes only one. That suited me just fine, usually wholesalers want you to buy in multiples of five or ten and if you only want one because you intend to propagate it yourself, you don’t get the option. That was the source of three of the varieties I still have.
The typical garden hydrangea is Hydrangea macrophylla. I have two forms of it with much in common but very different in character. Both are of Japanese origin, both are double flowered. One, ‘Izu-no-hana’ was collected in the wild, the other, ‘You and Me Together’ is the product of a modern breeding program.
‘Izu-no-hana’ is quite large growing and produces lace-cap flowers with a single row of double sterile flowers around the central grouping of fertile flowers. It flowers freely but nowhere near densely enough to mask the foliage. The effect is refined, light and airy, especially for a macrophylla variety.
The You and Me series were raised in Japan by R. Irie. They combine double flowers, flowering on current season’s growth, repeat flowering and a compact habit. They claim you can prune them to 10 cm in February and get flowers from midsummer until winter. I haven’t pruned my young bush that hard but it has carried on producing flowers deep into autumn and they stay in good condition for months. It would be very hard to beat for flower power but its compactness and the amount of flower costs it a little in elegance. Flowering on new growth means it will probably be fine in frost pocket gardens where the autumn produced buds get killed and probably means its size is relatively controllable. I moved it last year to replace H. serrata ‘Tiara’, which had struggled for the last few years because of being in too sunny and dry a position.
Hydrangea ‘Garden House Glory’ is a hybrid between H. macrophylla and H. serrata that was selected at The Garden House in Buckland Monochorum. The foliage has red tints when new and can colour well in autumn. The flowers are lacecap and a vibrant pinkish red, seemingly on both acid and alkaline soils. My plant has spent most of its life much too close to a very large bamboo and hopefully will perform better in its new, more congenial location, formerly occupied by H. ‘You and Me Together’.
The aforementioned trio from the local wholesaler are all serratas. Hydrangea serrata is a Japanese woodland species of smaller stature than H. macrophylla with smaller, thinner leaves. Two of mine are of Japanese origin, ‘Shojo’ and ‘ ‘Fuji-no-taki’.
‘Shojo’ gets quite large, mine is now around five feet tall and wide. It took a very long time, 5 or 6 years, to start to flower freely but now produces masses of medium sized lacecaps, the sterile florets on which start out pale blue fading to near white at the centre, deepening to cobalt blue before gradually turning purple. They are set off by a background of very dark foliage, nearly black in some light conditions, but due to dark red pigmentation of the leaves.
‘Fuji-no-taki’ makes a small bush to a maximum of a metre, though mine is still only half that after a dozen or more years. It becomes completely covered in dense heads of double white flowers which almost completely hide the few fertile florets which technically make it a lacecap variety. The sterile florets start pure white with a greenish yellow centre, then gradually turn pink from the outer petals inwards. Close up photos reveal blemishes that you don’t otherwise notice.
The serrata trio is completed by a variety raised in Brittany, France, called ‘Cap Sizun’. It is a lacecap but with enough sterile florets to be approaching a mophead in effect. In my garden it flowers a beautiful, clear light blue, gradually turning a little toward purple as it ages. The petals are frilly edged, adding to its charm. At its peak of flowering very little foliage is visible. Like ‘Shojo’, in the last two or three years the foliage has acquired very dark tints, contrasting with the pale flowers.
My remaining two hydrangeas are paniculatas, which is to say they are varieties of the species Hydrangea paniculata. This is another species which caught the attention of plant breeders sometime in the 1990’s or thereabouts. Before then there had been around five unspectacular varieties available but new ones started appearing at the rate of 4 or 5 a year. Go to the Plant Finder section of the RHS website and a list of 161 varieties comes up, albeit including many that appear to be unavailable.
I have ‘Early Sensation’ which doesn’t do what the RHS description says it should, it is neither early nor is it a sensation. It did colour well one autumn but that’s not a reliable attribute in Cornwall. It’s nice enough but knowing that many much better forms are available I am very tempted to upgrade.
The other one was a reject from the rejects. Put onto the cheap bench then pulled out to be thrown away because it was still there months later. It had one weak stem about 30 inches tall. I planted it in next door’s front garden and took the tip off. It produced a few shoots and the following winter I cut them back hard. After a few seasons it had quite a nice head on top of a three foot stem and when the neighbour died I rescued it and relocated it to our back garden. It’s a great way to grow them, with space beneath for other things above which it displays its own flowers. It gets cut back to the main framework each winter. This is a great attribute in a small garden as the size is controllable without losing flowers.
I should give an honorary mention to H. serrata ‘Tiara’, aka plus one. It was in the bed beside ‘Cap Sizun’ and peforming beautifully. Then I cut down the Magnolia that was shading it through the middle of the day and it went downhill fast, wilting badly on every sunny day. Though just beside it, ‘Cap Sizun’ still gets shade from other trees and is fine. I took some cuttings, dug up the bush and gave it away to a garden in Liskeard where it is much happier. The cuttings are now nice little plants in 2L pots and if a suitable space was available I would plant one this afternoon. ‘Tiara’ was a Maurice Foster selection, to which the appropriate response is “Ah, Maurice; say no more”. When in the garden it flowered a similar shade of blue to ‘Cap Sizun’ but in a pot it is flowering pink. The aluminium that is available to turn the flowers blue in my garden is simply not there in a soilless compost, no matter how acid it may be.
As with much in life, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. The macrophyllas are tough and accommodating, they will perform well under a wide range of conditions. Most of the others are a little more fussy, though not excessively so, but they are less well known and less frequently on offer in nurseries. If something different appeals to you, but you still want something of high ornamental value, they are worth looking into. You’ll have to search for obscure varieties and the RHS Plantfinder online will be a help. You could do a lot worse than to start with Pan-Global Plants. I’ve been there, I’ve spoken to Nick Macer but he wouldn’t know me from Adam and I certainly won’t get anything for the plug.