A different Hydrangea

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group

Many of us have been demoralised by the ferocious heat we have experienced this summer and its impact on our gardens. On extremely hot days, no plant suffers more in my own garden than the mophead Hydrangea, which had looked so beautiful in early summer. They are now past their best, with many burnt blooms - ones left unscathed are now ageing into greenish purple senescence, a look which I actually quite like.

Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group flowerhead

However, there is a very different Hydrangea that has been waiting in the wings to come into bloom now, which is totally unfazed by the heat. Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group, from China, is one of several similar (and confusing) Hydrangea, which are totally deciduous and almost tree-like in form (ht 2.5-3m), and which flower from late summer into autumn. It has slim, matt leaves and flattened lacecap blooms, which consist of tiny purplish-blue fertile flowers surrounded by large white or lilac-tinged sterile flowers. Bees love the flowers, the purplish-blue colour of which can be seen in the bees' pollen sacs as they buzz around the plant.

A bee enjoying the tiny fertile flowers

It has a more open form than other Hydrangea and seems more robust, coping far better with dry spells than the mophead sorts, with their large, lush leaves. It enjoys Sydney's climate but is also quite cold hardy. It can grow in sun or part shade, and needs no pruning beyond the removal of spent flowers at the end of its season. Companion plantings can include any of the many attractive for Plectranthus cultivars that are soon to come into bloom, particularly those with purple flowers to echo the tints of this Hydrangea: such as P. 'Mona Lavender', P. 'Purple Dazzler' or purple P. ecklonii. Silvery P. argentatus is also pretty growing below the shrub.

The graceful Japanese windflowers (Anemone x hybrid )also come into bloom when the Hydrangea is still flowering and look delightful growing around it. The purple or white flower spikes of Liriope muscari can form an attractive groundcover at its base, as could a carpet of purple-leaved for Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea'.

The plant sometimes sends out suckers and I have successfully dug these up to propagate it. My original plant came from the erstwhile Viburnum Gardens nursery in Arcadia more than 20 years ago, and I haven't ever seen it for sale anywhere else. I think it should be grown more often!