Winter Muted the Blue Hydrangeas’ Glory

What is summer without them?
Bluebird hydrangeas and their neon flowers appear to be home to a large flock of bluebirds. Abby Jane Brody

Blue hydrangeas are icons of summer in seaside areas along the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. What is summer without them? Well, we are finding out for the first time in decades.

It might be another 30 years before it happens again. However, this year’s washout creates an opportunity to find other hydrangeas that might be even more appealing and better able to withstand an occasional frigid winter.

Mopheads and many lacecap hydrangeas belong to the large leaf or macrophylla species, which has been affected. 

Truth be told, we are not totally without mopheads, although like a car running on a half-full tank there are only about half as many blooms as usual. All Summer Beauty, an old cultivar that flowers on old and new growth, is flowering on new side shoots in front of my house. Not a lot of flower heads and not as huge as in a normal year, but they are there. The new and too-popular Endless Summer series is also blooming in a half-tank-full kind of way. I say too popular because like invasive plants they are out-competing and eliminating much of the diversity of cultivars available for purchase in garden centers.

If a mophead you must have, seek out Hydrangea macrophylla Hamburg. It comes with a rave review from the gardeners at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa. (If you haven’t been to Chanticleer, it’s one of the best in the country and worth a special trip.) Hamburg flowers over a long period, they say. The flower color is rich, dark blue-purple, and there are plenty of large trusses on shapely, vigorous bushes. You’ll probably have to look for it in a mail-order nursery, but it will be worth it.

One of the Chanticleer gardeners’ favorite lacecaps is H. macrophylla Nightingale (Nachtigall) that has intense indigo blue-to-purple flowers. This one needs to be grown in a protected spot to avoid late-winter cold snaps that can kill the buds. There are hundreds of lacecap varieties and Chanticleer grows many, so if Nightingale merits a special mention, I’d pay attention.

Macrophylla hydrangeas are popular because they are big, blousy, buxom, and in your face. 

Mountain hydrangeas, H. serrata, on the other hand, are more refined and smaller. In fact they would be infinitely better than the ubiquitous H. macrophylla Nikko Blue, which is often too large for its space and must be pruned immediately after flowering to ensure flowers the following year. The flowers of the mountain hydrangeas last for a very long time, and as they age, turn ruby red; the changing color gives the illusion of a second bloom. The serratas are also more cold hardy and came through last winter without missing a beat. I think they are easier to integrate into beds or the landscape with other shrubs and perennials.

Bluebird is my favorite and is quite distinctive. It generally begins flowering in mid-June and its flowers are neon blue. What the lacecaps lack in size they make up for in sheer volume. Bushes do appear to be home to a large flock of bluebirds. Blue Billow is the one recommended by the Chanticleer gardeners for hardiness and reliability. The color is said to be an intense dark iridescent blue.

While the large-leaf and mountain hydrangeas flower on old wood, the smooth hydrangea, H. arborescens, flowers on new wood, making moot any damage to buds from late season frosts. It is native to the southeastern United States and is abundant along roadsides in western North Carolina where I’ve seen it growing out of crevices in the boulders. In nature it tends to grow on the shady side of the road in filtered light, but in the garden it is adaptable to either shade or sun.  

Annabelle, which has huge white mopheads, is one of the most popular hydrangeas, and rightfully so. It puts out masses of flowers and stops traffic when planted in large groupings. Annabelle has a reputation for flopping over from the weight of the flower head.

Recently a new variety, Incrediball, was introduced. It has even larger flowers than Annabelle and grows on stronger stems that remain upright. That was so in previous years, but not in the very heavy rains earlier in the month. The entrance to the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden is banked with Incrediball. It is a very shady spot, and the flowers are smaller than on bushes in my own garden that are in sun.

Incrediball begins flowering in mid-June and maintains its color for months. We cut the stems back almost to the ground whenever the flower heads start looking tatty in late fall or winter.

There are forms of H. arborescens in which the undersides of the leaves are white. The shrubs are very handsome when the leaves flutter in a stiff breeze. There also are lacecaps, which we’ve tried, but the flowers age and dry out fairly quickly, so they were yanked and replaced with Incrediball.

The oakleaf hydrangea, also native to the southeast, came through the winter in fine repair, as well. It forms substantial shrubs, rising to six or eight feet in our area. Oakleafs grow in shade or sun, although I think they have more and larger flowers when they get more sun. If you aren’t familiar with oakleaf hydrangeas, drive by the railroad station in East Hampton, where they are flowering under the crepe myrtles.

Snow Queen, a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal Plant, is one of the best performers. Its flower heads are larger and denser than others, which makes for a dramatic show. Snowflake is perhaps the most over-the-top hydrangea of all. It has enormous panicles with double flowers that are so heavy they tend to weigh down the branches. The bush, too, is enormous. If you are looking for a hydrangea to make a statement, Snowflake is the one, but make sure to give it plenty of space. Deer almost destroyed a young bush in the Native Plant Garden, but it came through and, although still small, is flowering this year.

The large-leaf hydrangeas are on the way back and ought to flower better than ever next year. Do take the opportunity, though, to add some less familiar but good performing and beautiful varieties to your garden.