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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.