If you are looking for a shrub that needs minimal care, blooms late spring through summer and even into the fall, you might want to consider one of the many hydrangeas. The genus Hydrangea includes numerous species, all of which have something to offer in the landscape.
Hydrangeas typically do best in a shade to semi-shade location, which makes them a great under-story plant for using around the base of large oaks and pines. Historically speaking, the big leaf hydrangeas were often planted in the shade of the rear entrance of a home and commonly called the “backdoor plant.”
By planting several different species of hydrangeas, you can enjoy their blooms starting in late May. The clusters of blooms hold their color for weeks and then, depending on the variety, continue to be attractive into the fall as their blooms fade into an alternate color. Cutting and drying these more mature flower heads can provide material for indoor arrangements through the winter months as well.
In addition to needing shade, hydrangeas need a well-drained soil, preferably with good organic matter. When first planted, they should be watered regularly. Once established, they usually do well on their own except during drought situations such as we have been experiencing this year.
The familiar blue or pink hydrangea seen growing around older homes and the potted varieties that are sold by florists are Hydranges macrophylla, commonly known as big leaf, garden, French or florist’s hydrangeas. These are often the easiest plants to find for purchase in garden centers.
With this species, the same question always arises – what makes the flowers either blue or pink or somewhere in between? The answer is soil pH. Depending on the pH of the soil where you place the plant, it will have more or less of the micro nutrient aluminum available to it. If the soil is acid, the flowers will be blue. In a soil that is alkaline, the flowers will be pink.
Hydrangea arborescens, also known as smooth or snowhill hydrangeas, has flower heads that are white to off-white appearing in June through September. It generally reaches a height of up to 5 feet. The leaves are oval and a grayish green in color.
A favorite variety of H. arborescens that does well in our area is “Annabelle." A big benefit of Annabelle is that it blooms on new wood so you have guaranteed bloom every year even if you have a late freeze. Its blooms fade to a gorgeous chartreuse.
Some varieties of Hydrangea serrata also grow to about 5 feet while others such as “Blue Billow” mature around 3 feet. The leaves are of a similar shape to the H. macrophylla, being rounded and light green but smaller.
The Oakleaf hydrangea, H. quercifolia, is ideal for a naturalized landscape setting. With large, 8-inch lobed leaves that resemble those of an oak, this hydrangea is loose in shape and sends out bunches of white flowers that turn pinkish purple as they age. In the fall, the leaves turn shades of bronze.
Hydrangeas are relatively easy to propagate from cuttings or by bending a branch down to the ground where it can “root in” while still attached to the mother plant. This method of layering can take a little more time, but the plant will continue to grow in the meantime and you will have a larger plant with a stronger root system when you separate it from the original plant.