August 19, 2012

Maine Gardener: Hydrangeas long-lasting and colorful, but 'the flop' detracts


Hydrangeas are a great plant for the Maine climate. They can bloom as early as June, and maintain their beauty throughout the growing season and even into winter.

Skillins Greenhouses -- with shops in Falmouth, Cumberland and Brunswick -- is offering a class on hydrangeas at each location at 10 a.m. Sept. 15. In announcing the class, nursery officials asked, "Should the hydrangea be the official flower of Skillins Country?"

Just possibly. This is a relatively new phenomenon, though. Until about the start of the 21st century, hydrangeas were an old-fashioned shrub that people would put in the garden and love for their huge flowers, but not get overly excited about. We had an "Annabelle" arborescens hydrangea in our backyard, and we would see the PeeGee (paniculata grandiflora) and Nikko Blue hydrangeas in other people's yards.

The "Endless Summer" hydrangea changed that, said Tim Bate, nursery manager at Skillins in Falmouth, who will be teaching the hydrangea course there. 

Michael Dirr, the premier woody plant specialist in the United States, discovered the plant in 1998 at Bailey's Nursery in Minnesota. It was a macrophylla hydrangea that blooms on new wood as well as old, and just about guarantees blooms each year even in Maine's tough climate.

"It does seem that every year, someone comes out with a new form of hydrangea," Bate said. "There are so many great ones that do very well here in Maine."

They are a workhorse in the garden, he says.

"They can't be matched for late-season color and as a plant that blooms for such a long time," he said. "Many shrubs come into bloom for a week or two, and then they are done."

Arborescens hydrangeas are native to the United States, although it is difficult to find the species version. "Annabelle" is the most common variety, and has been around the longest. In the past few years, two pink varieties have been introduced, "Invincibelle Spirit" and "Bella Anna." 

Bate said the new colors on those plants are great, which make them popular, but they do have a tendency to flop -- one of the major complaints about hydrangeas.

"Incrediball" is an arborescens that has bigger heads and stronger stems than Annabelle, and is supposed to do less flopping.

Bate said that at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, they have had some success keeping their arborescens hydrangeas from flopping by bunching them together. The ones on the edge may still bow down to the ground, but the ones in the middle remain upright.

If you are concerned about hydrangeas flopping, Bate has some advice. First, consider lacecap hydrangeas, which have flowers that are not as heavy as the mop-heads, and go with paniculata varieties.

" 'Pinky Winky' is a nice new variety that is known for the upright habit of its flower heads," Bate said. It has two-tone flowers of cream and red, and can grow to 8 feet.

Bate said "Limelight" is very strong, with smaller flower heads of light green. "Quickfire," in addition to being a sturdy and upright shrub, is one of the first hydrangeas to bloom in the garden, and keeps its flowers all winter long, he said.

I read somewhere that you can leave last year's stems on the hydrangea plants to keep this year's blossoms from flopping, and I asked Bate about it. He had not heard that, but said it would be worth trying.

There are several macrophylla hydrangeas in the "Endless Summer" series that have been introduced in recent years and have some advantages.

"I do like 'Blushing Bride' for those who are looking for lighter-color blooms on new wood and old wood," Bates said. "It starts out a light-green color and then turns blue or pink, depending on whether the soil is acid or alkaline.

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