Hydrangeas: You Have Choices

– Posted in: Hydrangeas, What's up/blooming
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Original Endless Summer hydrangea
The siren song of the original Endless Summer®. (Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries)

Have you been seduced by those blue-flowered mophead hydrangeas? I have. When the original Endless Summer® first came out, I had to have one. But after the first growing season, the blooms were few and late. It didn’t help that the plants were so doggone frost tender. I tried heaping leaves over them for protection, but that just seemed to make more work for me without getting many more flowers.

I’ve been sent trial plants of many other supposedly repeat-blooming mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla) and I’ve yet to grow one that blooms much–if at all–after the first greenhouse-grown year.

Why? Why keep trying to make a macrophylla happy, when there are so many terrific hydrangeas that are extremely hardy and easy to please? Oh, yeah–that color. Well, maybe you should just get over it? Is it worth the struggle?

Hydrangea macrophylla Endless Summer
In 2009 my Endless Summer® had one bloom!

It wasn’t for me. I have a lot of garden and the same twenty-four hours everyone else has. And I am, at heart, a lazy gardener. At the same time I was receiving samples of the latest macrophyllas, I was also receiving trial plants of hydrangeas that are far easier to make happy–and colorful as well. They are mostly plant-and-forget shrubs that make a big impact in my garden. The difference in the amount of care these two groups of shrubs needed was remarkable.

These no-fuss, hardy shrubs are improved versions of ‘Annabelle’ and ‘PeeGee’ hydrangeas, and if you’re a cold climate gardener like me, those are the hydrangeas you see in old, established neighborhoods and cemeteries. The breeders have been having fun with these two oldies-but-goodies, and they now come in different sizes with more colorful blooms.

I want to show you what the non-macrophyllas look like in my garden. Many of them are just spectacular in autumn. Maybe–just maybe–I’ll convince you that those bodacious snowballs of blue are not the only way to glam up your garden. Note: All the shrubs I’m about to show you were received as trial or sample plants for me to grow in my garden and share my results with you.

Improvements to ‘PeeGee’

The ‘PeeGee’ hydrangea is the prototype Hydrangea paniculata. This species is hardy to USDA Zone 3b (yes, you read that right). The flowers are cone-shaped. This species can be trained into a tree form, and many cemeteries have these hydrangea “trees.”

These improved PeeGees turn lovely shades of pink to almost-red as summer transitions into fall. I’ve set a photo of each shrub’s August bloom next to its September bloom so you can see the color change.

Berry White® Hydrangea, which I received from First Editions Plants, has only been in my garden since last year, and has already made quite a bit of growth. It’s supposed to get 6 to 7 feet high (about 2 meters). Blooming in August on the left and in September on the right.
Hydrangea paniculata Bobo
Two Bobo® hydrangeas, sample plants from Proven Winners, flanking a Little Devil™ ninebark. Bobo™ is supposed to grow three to four feet tall, but mine top out at five feet (about 1.5 meters). They turn a soft pink in autumn. August on top; September on bottom.
Hydrangea paniculata Fire Light®, also received from Proven Winners, is probably the darkest of all come autumn. August on the left; September on the right.

Two years ago, I opened my garden in September so visitors could view my colchicum collection. I got more questions about Fire Light® than I did about colchicums! It is really striking in the fall landscape, not to mention hardy and easy-care in cold climates. The many questions made me realize that most people have no idea how many choices they have with hydrangeas.

This is Hydrangea paniculata Quick Fire®, another trial plant from Proven Winners. As you can probably guess, the August photo is on the left, and the September photo is on the right.

I often get Quick Fire® and Fire Light® mixed up. It doesn’t help that they both have fire in their names! The flowers of Fire Light® are more conical and the florets are closer together. Quick Fire® blooms earlier, and its flower clusters are looser, making the overall shape of the flower less defined.

I’m trying to train Vanilla Strawberry™, a trial plant from First Editions, into a tree form. It seemed to have the beginnings of a tree, and I cut the lowest branches and tied it to a stake to help the “trunk” stay upright. (August above; September below)
Vanilla Strawberry hydrangea paniculata
Vanilla Strawberry™ flowers are distinctly cone shaped, and bigger than any of the other paniculatas mentioned.
I’m just getting to know Zinfin Doll®, which Proven Winners sent to me three years ago. This hydrangea is blooming well for the first time this year. It will be six to eight feet (1.8 to 2.4m) tall when it reaches its mature height. August blooms above; September blooms below.

I’m too embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to realize “Zinfin Doll” was a pun on the red wine zinfandel.

Improvements to ‘Annabelle’

‘Annabelle’ is the classic Hydrangea arborescens cultivar. ‘Annabelle’ and the newer cultivars of H. arborescens are hardy to USDA Zone 3a (-40°F/C)–slightly hardier than H. paniculata and its cultivars. Unlike the paniculatas, Invincibelle®Spirit (and its successor, Invincibelle® Spirit II) colors up earlier in the summer and then the color fades to white, and then tan.

Invincibelle® Spirit has been superseded by Invincibelle® Spirit II. They both grow in my garden and I really can’t tell them apart, so I’m just showing you Invincibelle Spirit since the photos are better.
Incrediball® is incredible. Huge flowers, huge shrub. It anchors one end of my porch. But it doesn’t turn pink. It’s a lovely pure white in July, gradually turning green and then tan.

Whether pink or tan, the aging flowers work well in dried arrangements and crafts. The fresh flowers seem a bit tricky in a vase, sometimes lasting a week and sometimes wilting. I haven’t figured that one out.

But wait, there’s more!

Mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata) isn’t as well known as these others, and it’s “only” hardy to USDA Zone 5. I have found Tuff Stuff™ from Proven Winners to be tolerant of late spring frosts so it’s as easy care as the paniculatas and the arborescens in my used-to-be-Zone-4 climate.

Tuff Stuff™ flowers start out pink and get pinker. They don’t seem to fade too much. I’ve read that they will turn purple-blue in acid soil. Well, I thought I had acid soil . . .

As you can see from the photo above, Tuff Stuff™ is not as floriferous as some of the others. Possibly it just isn’t mature yet. I’m growing it on the north side of my deck, and if it got more sun, it would surely have more flowers. I think it’s pretty just as it is and the flowers go well with my other plants in this area, so I won’t be moving it to get more flowers.

If you’ve still gotta have that blue . . .

Take a look at Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha®, another mountain hydrangea from Proven Winners. I haven’t grown it myself, but it’s supposed to bloom true-blue in acid soil.

And if you’re determined to grow macrophyllas, Bailey’s Nurseries has a whole line of reblooming mophead hydrangeas–the Endless Summer Collection. Proven Winners’ Let’s Dance series offers an equally enchanting selection of reblooming mopheads. Maybe you’ll have better luck than me. Better soil, more sun, fewer late frosts, longer growing season, more patience–there’s a whole bunch of reasons why you might have more success than I have had.

The choice is yours!

If you’ve already got an ‘Annabelle’ or a ‘PeeGee’ growing in your garden, I wouldn’t dig it up. They’re fine plants. But if you’re currently considering a hydrangea for your garden, explore all your options before choosing a shrub. There’s plenty more that I haven’t mentioned because I haven’t grown them, or haven’t grown them long enough to fairly evaluate them. Proven Winners has a booklet with all their choices, and First Editions selections can be found here.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Jackson October 10, 2019, 11:27 am

I didn’t realize there was such a variety of hydrangeas! I’m in the works of planning the landscape of my front yard and I want to incorporate these beauties. Now I have some great advice… thanks!

Barbara Phillips Conroy October 2, 2019, 1:36 pm

I have moved to the land of the hydrangea – Welland, ON. On the court every single home has a hydrangea paniculata on a stick. I kid you not. Lots of clay and lots of wet. Have brought a couple of petulant hydrangea children from the old garden to see if they smarten up. It will be a real learning experience in this new garden!

Carolyn October 1, 2019, 8:12 am

I purchased three Endless Summer hydrangeas two years ago and have been very disappointed. I relocated in the yard hoping to find the perfect environment but so far it looks to be futile. I would love to find other flowering shrubs that could be good additions to my garden since I am beginning to feel like hydrangeas are taking over gardens everywhere :-).

Kathy Purdy October 1, 2019, 10:01 am

I know there are books out there that could help you with this. I’ve read magazine articles that talk about this. But you can also google it. “Best flowering shrubs for sun {shade, region, state, hardiness zone, etc.}” A good research project for winter.

Kate September 30, 2019, 3:46 pm

I’ve been growing Tuff Stuff and Tiny Tuff Stuff for a handful of years in zone 5. They bloom every year. Tuff Stuff has large purple blooms (located in mostly sun), Tiny Tuff Stuff has smaller bright sky-blue blooms that absolutely festoon the shrub (located in various sun to part-shade areas). They are both top-notch cultivars. I pulled out the macrophyllas years ago and haven’t looked back.

Alan Grossberg September 30, 2019, 3:05 pm

Great article! I have ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Penny Mac’ right next to the house, facing southeast with sun from dawn until 1PM. Been there 6 years…first year had many flowers…then declining numbers every year. Now they’re always full, lush plants growing 4’h x 3’w with NO flowers. I might try superphosphate or even root pruning (like with Wisterias) to see if that helps. I think the problem is that even though they’re supposedly remontant, the growing season north of roughly central CT isn’t long enough for flowers to form and bloom on the new wood.

Kathy Purdy September 30, 2019, 7:21 pm

The short growing season is one problem. Also, I’ve been told that in the north H. macrophylla cultivars need full sun. Tim Boebel, in his book Hydrangeas in the North: Getting Blooms in the Colder Climates, recommends a pruning regimen that involves thinning in early July and pruning to the height of the mulch used to insulate them for the winter. Mind, he is thinking of Zone 6 when he says “colder climate.” But you might want to get your hands on his book if you’re determined to get those hydrangeas to bloom. Lorraine Ballato also has a book on hydrangeas, but I haven’t read it, so don’t know if it will address your problem.

nella davis-ray September 30, 2019, 11:25 am

Thanks so much for your honesty about macrophyllas in Zone 5. I agree, just don’t bother. Pulling the last 2 of 5 “Forever and Ever” Peppermint shrubs plant in 2013 that never amounted to a hill of beans. Thanks for the summer/fall comparisons. I’m adding Fire Light to my list. My fav Paniculata is “Pinky Winky”

Kathy Purdy September 30, 2019, 11:50 am

‘Pinky Winky’ is one I don’t have, but I’ve heard good things about it.

Pat Webster September 30, 2019, 10:02 am

I’m with Lisa, Kathy. A very helpful post. And like her, I will look for Firelight… love the autumn colour.

Gail September 30, 2019, 9:03 am

Beautifulness, Kathy! Love that moph ead, I have it in a container, but, I garden in zone7a. I hope you can try some of the other H arborescens cultivars.
H arborescens ‘Dardom’ WHITE DOME is hardy to zone 4. You would love it. No flop and tall stems. xogail

Lisa at Greenbow September 30, 2019, 7:02 am

I have Annabelle in my garden and she is a terrible flopper. I am looking for a new hydrangea to grow. I am glad you posted this review. I really like the looks of Firelight. I think I will give it a try.

Kathy Purdy September 30, 2019, 7:14 am

So glad you found it helpful!