The Well-Dressed Garden

HYDRANGEAS FOR EVERY GARDEN

In the never-ending horticultural competition for best flowering shrub, hydrangeas consistently take the top prize. No other family of flowering shrubs can compete with hydrangeas for their beauty and versatility. Gardeners are the big winners: For every garden, there is a hydrangea -- or three.

Hydrangeas are natural problem-solvers. They make a great impression when they're planted in billowing waves across the front of a house. They're magnificent specimens on their own. They fill a small garden with luxurious, long-lasting blooms, and they are grand enough to more than hold their own in a big garden. They're also extremely handsome in pots. And, if you can bear to pick them, their flowers are gorgeous in bouquets.

The challenge is deciding which ones to grow. In the past couple of decades, dozens of ever more colorful, hardy, hardworking new hydrangeas have been introduced. These new varieties tolerate steamy summers and cold winters, bloom for months and need no pampering.

Hydrangeas are almost the essence of summer. The original Endless Summer hydrangea -- a blue mop-head flowering variety known for its long blooming period, from early summer through fall -- was introduced in 2004 and was an immediate sensation: 18 million plants were sold in its first seven years on the market. Since then, three more hydrangeas have been added to the Endless Summer collection: Blushing Bride, a white-flowering variety; Twist-n-Shout, a variety with delicate lace-cap flowers; and BloomStruck, which has deep blue blooms. This year, they are joined by Summer Crush, which has luminous raspberry-colored flowers on a compact plant.

Endless Summer hydrangeas are bred to last. They flower both on new shoots and on the previous year's growth, so their first flowers open earlier and their last ones bloom later than most hydrangeas on the market. Their hardiness also sets them apart from any previous summer-flowering hydrangeas, but in the coldest climates, planting them in protected spots is still a good idea.

As gardeners have rediscovered the pleasures of mop-head hydrangeas, hybridizers have broadened the selection of panicle-blooming hydrangeas, too. Panicle hydrangeas tend to bloom a little later in the summer, their cone-shaped flower heads covered with hundreds of tiny white or cream-colored blooms that fade to pink. They adapt gracefully to sun or part shade, and they are both heat-tolerant and bone hardy, surviving without protection even in bitterly cold climates. Limelight, perhaps the best known of the new generation of panicle hydrangeas, grows up to 8 feet tall and blooms prolifically. A dwarf form, Little Lime, has all the hardworking characteristics of the big shrub, but only grows to be 3 to 5 feet tall. Bobo, even smaller and perhaps more floriferous, is only 3 feet tall and wide.

"They're eye-catching," says Noelle Clark Akin of Petitti Garden Centers in northeast Ohio. The company has nine shops, and hydrangeas are the top-selling flowering shrub at all of them. Petitti Garden Centers carry 40 or more different hydrangeas, and last year, Bobo and Little Lime outsold even Endless Summer, Akin says, although not by much.

The selection doesn't stop there. Breeders have been working to improve the flowers and performance of smooth hydrangeas, which are North American natives. (They are also called Hydrangea arborescens.) New varieties have bigger flowers and sturdier stems than the original species, and a refreshing splash of color: Several new smooth hydrangeas -- Invincibelle Spirit and Invincibelle Mini Mauvette among them -- have big pink snowball flowers rather than white blooms. Arborescens hydrangeas are heat- and cold-tolerant, blooming in full sun or part shade.

When customers come to a garden shop looking for hydrangeas, they usually go out with "whatever looks best the day they come in," says Ron Meadows, the buyer for the nearly two dozen Meadows Farms Garden Centers in Virginia and Maryland. Limelight and Little Lime are among the most popular with Meadows Farms retail customers.

Garden designers go beyond the crowd favorites, Meadows says, and often include oakleaf hydrangeas in clients' gardens. These hydrangeas have large, leathery leaves, rather like big red oak leaves. The plants bloom in early summer, with loose, white panicle-type flowers. In fall, the foliage turns deep red. When the leaves drop, the plants' stems, with naturally peeling bark, are particularly decorative through the winter.

"Oakleaf hydrangeas don't show very well in the garden center, but I love them in the landscape," Meadows says. They can grow to 8 feet tall or more, but dwarf varieties are perfect for small gardens: Munchkin and Ruby Slippers both grow to only 3 feet tall.

Choosing among the types, colors and sizes of hydrangeas at a garden shop in spring can be overwhelming, Meadows admits. "We need to streamline," he says. But until that happens, if you come home with more than one hydrangea, you have an excuse: You've just started a collection.

SOURCES

-- Endless Summer hydrangeas have their own website, endlesssummerblooms.com

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