"Celebrating hydrangeas"

What a great year for hydrangeas!
Sunday, 15 November 2020     

Mopheaded Hydrangea macrophylla

Has there every been a better year for hydrangeas? The wonderful rain that we have received over the last few months seems to have led to one of the best-ever displays of these stalwart shrubs in Sydney gardens. Plump Hydrangea bushes, with their bold blue or pink mopheads, were part of the landscape of my childhood. Everyone grew them, including my parents, who had a row of them on the southern side of our house where we would play on hot days. When I first started gardening, I spurned them as 'too common', but eventually I realised that they are wonderful plants for our Sydney climate, blooming over an extended period from late spring through summer, and being attractive even as their flowers age in autumn. The fact that they enjoy shady parts of the garden is an added bonus. They provide excellent cut flower material as well: pick the stems in the early morning and keep immersed in a bucket of water, up to the flower heads, for several hours before arranging in your vase. Stems picked in autumn can be dried to provide a long-lasting floral display. Remove the leaves then keep in a vase of water until the flowers become like paper.

It's true that Hydrangea can look hideous and straggly if they are neglected and unpruned, but as long as they are given some water and a bit of attention, they will reward you many times over. Their need for water can be reduced somewhat by planting them from the outset in good, compost-enriched soil and keeping them well mulched. Once they are established, they need less watering. It is best not to plant them too near to large trees with greedy roots - they grow best in the shade cast by buildings where there is no root competition. They don't mind having some morning sun - and in fact will flower better for it; it is the hot afternoon sun that will singe their leaves and burn their blooms. Refer to my plant directory entry for Hydrangea macrophylla to see more cultivation details.

The status of Hydrangea macrophylla has risen in recent years, with many fancy cultivars now available. The big domed mopheads are the most commonly seen - all mine are cuttings of the ones once grown by my parents in their mountains garden, with no identifiable names. The pretty lacecap varieties, with an outer ring of sterile florets surrounding a clustered centre of tiny fertile flowers, are very popular with gardeners at the moment. Reliable cultivars include 'Libelle' (ht 1.5 m) and 'Lanarth White' ( ht 1.5 m), both with white florets. Coloured ones are also available. I have a variegated-leaf lacecap originally grown by my grandmother in her garden for many years (possibly H. 'Maculata').

I also have an unusual Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar named 'Ayesha', which is a very strong, tough shrub, growing almost 3 m tall. I received it as a cutting from my old neighbour the day I left my previous home in Ryde. Each flower has a cupped, waxy form, a bit like a lilac - our local florist refers to it as 'popcorn Hydrangea', and each flower-head does actually look like a cup of blue (or pink!) popcorn! This is the only cultivar I know of with these unusual blooms, but perhaps there are others.

Hydrangea flowers vary from pink to blue depending on the pH of the soil - an acid soil results in blue flowers, whilst an alkaline soil gives pink blooms. I have one cultivar called 'Tosca' (pictured at left), which is said to always stay pink because it doesn't take up the aluminium in the soil, but even that one has been known to turn blue. White forms are stable. There are red ones available - I'm not sure how these fare in different soils. Various substances are available from nurseries to manipulate the colours. On the whole, the intensity of the flower colour in any particular cultivar doesn't change a lot: some are naturally pale and others more strongly coloured. There are forms which have double flowers, which are intriguing and attractive. Hydrangea heights vary from 1-3 m; many of the smaller Hydrangea can be grown in pots. I have had great success with a specimen in a container with a built-in 'water well' in recent times.

The large, lush green leaves of hydrangeas provide an effective backdrop to other plantings. I think they look best when massed together, rather than grown singly. In the long shady border in my back garden (pictured at left) where my white Hydrangea bushes are , I also grow renga renga lilies, white Justicia carnea and the unusual green and white of the bulb Albuca nelsonii, along with the silvery foliage plants Strobilanthes gossypina, Helichyrsum petiolare and Plectranthus argentatus, and some white-variegated foliage plants such as stripy Iris japonica 'Variegata'. This part of the garden is now irrigated with my grey-water system, and is the lushest it has ever been! This border only needs attention for a few hours a year and always looks OK - my own oasis of coolness like the one remembered from my childhood.

This blog originally posted on 29 November 2009; updated 15 November 2020.

 Reader Comments

1/11  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2009

I think your popcorn hydrangea is what I call a Japanese hydrangea. My grandparents had a huge bush outside the back door. Last year I had several attractive blue hydrangeas which are now all a pretty pink after I repotted them into Hortico potting mix last summer.

Thanks, Sue. I have heard a few people call it the Japanese one. I only heard the popcorn term last week. All my potted Hydrangea shrubs are pink, which makes a change as all the ones in my garden are blue. Deirdre

2/11  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2009

love hydrangeas! popcorn I also know as the Japanese type. Some of my hydrangeas receive sun and of course wilt, but do recover. I have been covering them with old sheets as the flowers burn in the heat. Libelle is delightful.

Thanks, Margaret. I have followed your hint with the sheets and it certainly helps. Deirdre

3/11  Ann - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2009

My popcorn Hydrangea is flowering this season, is 60cm tall and has 8 pink blooms. It was grown from a small cutting from a mutual friend. My white one is burnt from insufficient shade, while the lace-cap doesnt mind the sun.

Thanks, Ann. The white mopheads seem to suffer the most from sunburn. Putting the sheets over them on very hot days does help. Mine was planted in a spot with too much sun, unfortunately. Deirdre

4/11  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 November 2020

This year, hydrangeas are absolutely beautiful! Most of mine are in full flower, and I am just about to cover the bushes, with my sheets, to protect from the expected heat today. Two macrophylla bushes, brought as cuttings from my parents' Bondi garden, have both blue and pink flowers on them. My 'Ayesha' plants are covered with buds, with the promise of a wonderful show. Hydrangea have always been one of my favourite plants. Such a good idea to cover the hydrangeas with sheets on these hot days. Many of my hydrangeas have sentimental memories attached to who gave them to me as cuttings! Deirdre

5/11  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 November 2020

I just adore Hydrangeas! Bought a purple that is now pink & a blue one that is now lilac even though I have putting using the bluing agent on them for a year. It's so frustrating as I long for a beautiful blue one!They are in pots. Any idea what's going wrong? I think it takes quite a long time to change the colour of a hydrangea. One tip I have just read in an old garden bed is to use sulphate of iron to get a deeper shade of colour in hydrangeas. I wonder if that might help? I have never tried it myself. Or maybe try growing your hydrangea in a large pot?Deirdre

6/11  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 November 2020

Love hydrangeas too especially one, a Japanese type which belonged to my grandmother. Registering 38 deg in the back garden at present and hot direct sun due to a neighbour taking down a large tree 2 weeks ago. Now looking to plant a deciduous tree to shade them in summer as I don't want to move them. Sun & shade can change so quickly sometimes. Yes that is a worry for you. Maybe try Margaret's tip of covering them with sheets in the meantime? See above, Deirdre

7/11  Jennifer - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 November 2020

I have the Ayesha hydrangea also, at least 25yrs old. In the last few years a sport flower (from a centre branch) has appeared on the bush as a mop head. I tie a ribbon around it and cut it off after flowering, try to strike it but every attempt has failed. The other popcorn flowers stay true. Thought you may be interested in this. An interesting phenomenon, Jennifer. I have never had that happen on mine. Hope you can strike it one day. Deirdre

8/11  Jil - 5126 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 16 November 2020

Your hydrangeas are lovely, Deirdre. My gardener/husband cannot stop propagating hydies, I have to threaten him. They are the flower that keeps on giving aren't they, beautiful fresh, beautiful dried. I too find I keep propagating them then don't know what to do with the resultant plants as I have no more room for any more! Deirdre

9/11  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 November 2020

i was going to say that my grandparents had a japanese hydrangea until i noticed that I said that in 2009. My Hydrangeas, all in pots, had a tough time and a few scruffy flowers until the rain came and now they are covered in buds again. Must go and water them after today's heat. Ha ha; thanks for being such a loyal, long-term reader! Hope the heat doesn't get to them over the next day or so. Deirdre

10/11  Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 November 2020

Hydrangeas are so lovely in our summers with the long lasting blue 'flowers'. I planned a hedge along the outside of my front fence - 50m - but it was not a success with summer heat and tree roots. Luckily they grow easily and well in Southern, shaded, cooler areas of the garden. Yes they aren't happy with too much heat or tree root competition. Glad you found a good spot for them. Deirdre

11/11  Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 19 November 2020

In regard to 'Ayesha' sporting to a plain mophead, I have had it happen in my garden. I have also often noticed it in coastal areas with sandy soils where there are large bushes of the old-fashioned pale blue 'Sir Joseph Banks'.

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