Hydrangea Madness From Endless Summer to Limelight, Ruby Slippers to Nikko Blue, Piedmont to coast, a plethora of varieties boggles the mind — and bewitches the garden By Lee Rogers • Photographs by Mark Steelman
s a garden designer, every spring I troll the aisles of Lowe’s, The Home Depot and my area’s garden centers searching for beautiful new plant introductions. In particular, I’ve been fascinated in recent years by a bounty of new hydrangea cultivars flooding the market, all making claims of superior beauty, improved strength and floral display. This year, out of simple curiosity, I flipped through some local wholesale nursery catalogues to see how many hydrangea varieties would be available for this season in North Carolina. Not counting the climbing varieties, I found fifty-five cultivars offered — enough to overwhelm even the most experienced hydrangea fan. Hydrangea madness is easy to understand. The woody stemmed shrubs are grown in virtually every warm-to-cold weather region of the United States, and their old-fashioned, long-lasting pink, blue and cream white flower heads (panicles) are outrageously showy affairs. Sometimes they last most of a summer, making them irresistible to gardeners of all skill levels. Unfussy and easy to root, arguably the most popular flowering shrub in America, hydrangeas, as everyone’s gardening grandmother knows, make great cutting flowers for any occasion and offer superb foundations for dried arrangements.
Salt • June 2016
Woody plant expert and University of Georgia horticulture professor emeritus Michael Dirr, however, has pronounced that many hydrangea cultivars now available or just reaching the marketplace aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Among other factors, in the rush to sell the latest cultivars with bolder colors and claims and reliability, some varieties are not field-tested adequately enough to fully assess their value to home gardeners. “It’s almost like you sell it and then move on to the next plant,” Dirr recently told Penn State’s extension service (extension.psu.edu), pointing out that some new introductions are forgotten as quickly as they appeared, just two or three years out. Some “aren’t even available in the market anymore. Customers may be dissatisfied but they’re already on to the next thing, again being promised as better [when] it probably isn’t. You tell me how to regulate it. I’d like to know how to do it too,” he vented. Dirr would certainly know. With a doctorate in plant physiology from Massachusetts, Amherst, not only did he write the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, the most popular book on the propagation of woody plants (with more than 300,000 copies in circulation), but has also developed more than sixty-five varieties of woody plants and shrubs, including perhaps the most popular hydrangea to date: Endless Summer, a reblooming wonder that The Art & Soul of Wilmington