Totally Southern Hydrangeas

So, you’re in the South now and you did as all good Southerners do–you planted your first hydrangea.

You read the instructions, “plant mostly in the sun but afternoon shade is preferred.” You were quite proud of yourself for even finding that rarified place in your yard, but you managed. You’ve spent the summer attending weddings, teas and brunches where gorgeous, white, mop-head hydrangea blooms adorned tables mixed with Calla lilies and you dreamed of the day when it would be your Southern table they sat on. There’s just one problem. Your hydrangea isn’t blooming.

You sneak a peek at your neighbor’s yard. Their hydrangea is nestled under their Crapemyrtle with blooms bending the stems to the ground. What’s up? Well, like those melt-in-your-mouth Southern biscuits you’re still trying to bake, hydrangeas are not as easy as they look.

First you have to figure out what’s what in the world of hydrangeas. Those gorgeous, white mop-head flowers you’ve been envying are what’s called the ‘Annabelle’ cultivar. This hydrangea blooms first, generally mid-to-late June. That’s why you see it at June weddings. It is called the Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’) and it blooms on terminal (new) shoots. So, if you live next to a grandma who tells you to cut your hydrangea back every fall, she’s likely right. Smooth Hydrangea is the only one that blooms on new growth, so cutting it back year to year is actually good for it.

The Annabelle culitvar, which grows about three to four feet tall and can actually be somewhat weedy (as if a hydrangea ever could), aren’t sold too often anymore. Probably, when you went to your local nursery, you purchased the Bigleaf Hydrangea or French Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). It also has the mop-head blooms like the ‘Annabelle’ but they can be pink, blue, purple or white. Their color will depend on the acidity of your soil. These are more commonly found and purchased in nurseries today. Their blooms are sometimes as large as 12 inches across and can be round or flat-topped, the latter type is called lacecaps. They bloom in mid-July following closely on the heels of the Annabelle. This is a favorite Southern shrub and it seems to grow effortlessly everywhere you look. Not so.

The flowers of Bigleaf Hydrangeas bud on last year’s growth. This means they set their buds during the summer on old wood. So, if you listened to that same grandma and pruned yours to the ground in the fall, you just lost next summer’s blooms. There’s also the problem of a late Spring freeze which can destroy the flower buds set last year, as well. If you’re going to prune your shrub, do so immediately after blooming so as not to disturb next year’s buds. If you live in a place where spring is unpredictable, purchase a more winter-hardy variety such as Hydrangea paniculata, or Panicle Hydrangea.

Panicle Hydrangea is a taller shrub and blooms about the same time as the Bigleaf Hydrangea. Its flowers are panicle shaped, hence the name, not mop-head. They are white but turn purplish-pink as they mature. They are also urban tolerant if you live in a particular traffic congested area.

Some cultivars bud on terminal (end) and lateral (length-wise) stems so if the terminal–new growth buds–are lost, you still have the blooms along the bottom of the stems. It is important to know what cultivar you have. Never throw away the plant tag of any shrub or tree. Store it someplace like the kitchen drawer, which is a good spot for everything, and refer back to it. You can also look your cultivar up on the internet. Many sites give good specifics about your plant.

Consider where you are in the South. Hydrangeas are good from zone 6 through 9, but the hotter your area, the more shade your shrub will need. The cooler your area, especially if you’re in the mountains at a higher elevation, the more sun you’ll need for fuller blooms. They also like water. If your shrub has just been planted then you must be sure to water thoroughly and often or it will wilt and die. Once established it is still important to water but not as often.

Finally, consider the easy way out. Go with the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), a native that can tolerate full sun or moderately dense shade. It is cold hardy to Zone 5 so you’ll have fewer worries about losing flower buds to winter or spring frost. It can be an interesting plant all year long–a four season shrub. The flowers are just as showy as the mop-heads varieties though they are long and cylindrical rather than globe-shaped. They are white and fade to shades of pink and brown as they mature. The leaves turn red in the fall before dropping and the bark is exfoliating, making it an interesting winter shrub. It is definitely trouble-free and you’ll still have great flowers for the table. Your yard will be blooming hydrangeas in no time.

So go ahead. Take the easy way out and enjoy your Southern yard with a little less trouble. And those biscuits? Simple. Take two cups of self-rising flour and mix with 8 ounces of whipping cream. Cut to shape and bake at 425 for 10 to 12 minutes. Takes only a second, darling.

My favorite, Oakleaf Hydrangea

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