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Gardening: Hydrangeas

14 August 2020

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HYDRANGEAS take me back to Cornwall in the 1970s, where I enjoyed a slightly feral childhood in a Cornish fishing village. Each summer, bulky blooms lolled over stone walls lining the many cut-throughs to the beach. My mum grew them in half whisky barrels in a paved front garden that overlooked the sea.

They are easy shrubs, flowering in hues of green through pinks, and some true blues. Their flowers persist well into autumn, adapting to the season by fading to delightful antique shades. Hydrangeas, by Naomi Slade, published last month (Pavilion, £25 (£22.50)), celebrates their history and cultivation, describing varieties from “elegant and airy” to “cool and crazy”.

Plant genera wax and wane in popularity as garden plants. Thousands of potential new stars are rejected before a new named variety appears in the Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder. The recent surge in our on/off love affair with hydrangeas has brought to the fore some excellent new forms. Runaway Bride Snow White is the result of crossing Hydrangea macrophylla with a relatively unknown Asian species. It has inherited the ability to flower from side buds from the latter, and the blooms are the lacecap type (with flowerheads composed of a centre of tiny, fertile florets encircled with showy sterile florets), with the result that the shrub has a romantic frothy look for many summer months.

The flowers are produced on stems formed the previous year; so winter pruning should involve little more than taking the tips back to a couple of fat buds. A drastic prune would result in few or no flowers. Runaway Bride Snow White won the Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year in 2018, and in 2014 the same accolade went to another hydrangea: Hydrangea macrophylla “Miss Saori”. This is a compact plant that does well in a container. The flowers are the mophead type, but their solidity is broken by the deep rose margins to each sterile white floret giving a picotee effect. This is set off by the burgundy tinged leaves.

Hydrangea flowers change colour as they age. The Magical Series were bred from plants that strongly exhibited this characteristic. Hydrangea “Magical Revolution” bears large mophead flowers that start blue or pink on acid/alkaline soils respectively, and gradually develop green highlights. Hydrangea “Prezioza” is another good example, with round heads of rose-pink flowers that turn reddish purple. One of its parents is Hydrangea serrata, a small wiry shrub that has given us some splendid varieties for small gardens.

“Bluebird” has dainty lacecap blooms in blue or pink, depending on soil type again, and “Beni-gaku” is an old Japanese variety with white flowers darkening to pink. Again, a lacecap, but one with just a few bracts around the perimeter; so it is especially delicate and a long way from those beefy Cornish residents.

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