In defence of hydrangeas

Recently I’ve seen a slew of comments dismissing hydrangeas. They are often seen as the reserve of old fashioned shrubberies, seen as old fashioned, blousy and a bit tasteless.  Madonna famously showed her dislike for them when a fan presented her with a bouquet. My current garden came with three mopheads (hydrangea macrophylla) and a climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris). Initially, I disliked the vibrant neon pink of the mopheads and barely noticed the climber buried at the back of the border. However, I’ve come to appreciate them for many reasons over the last few years and carried on adding more.

Vibrancy

These mopheads frame the path. They open up as green bracts and develop into a bright pink before fading and drying as brown flower heads. They frame the steps down to the garden perfectly. Hydrangeas require a lot of water and these are situated perfectly. The run off from the patio ensures they get plenty of water. I feed them with banana peels and veg peelings. This gives them both a mulch to keep water in and gives them nutrition.

Alice framed on the lawn by the hydrangeas 2018

The bright colour shows well from above and fills a large space for minimal effort.

The view from above 5.18

Low maintenance

Apart from the already mentioned watering requirements, I don’t have to do very much to my hydrangeas and I get rewarded with a reliable burst of colour each year. I leave the flower heads on over winter, then prune back just behind the flower heads in Spring. Then I thin out a few of the older stems. This seems to work well for me as I’ve had great displays several years running. If you want to change the hydrangea colour you can mess with the pH of the soil to change them from pink to blue or blue to pink, but this seems a futile venture as they will gradually revert. But otherwise, these are a minimal effort plant. They grow well in shade or in sun so long as they are well watered.

Seasonal interest

The various hydrangeas in my garden almost all have long flowering periods. I keep many shrubs in the garden for maybe a week or two return in terms of flowers. The hydrangeas give months of pleasure.

In the initial stage of most the bracts open giving a pleasant green before shifting to the flowers colour.

In Autumn the flower heads brown off and if left remains a solid structural element in the garden.

They then look gorgeous in winter with the frost on.

Wildlife benefit

Hydrangeas are continually rated as low benefit for wildlife. I’ve always found this strange as the mopheads are always covered in different insects. Last year they were covered in the influx of silver Y moths.

Peacock butterfly
Dragonfly
I’ve found ladybird larvae regularly on hydrangeas, although I’m unsure why as aphids don’t generally bother with hydrangeas.

But according to the literature, the mopheads are largely infertile so the flowers aren’t offering many benefits to the pollinators. The fertility of the flowers varies with each type. Maybe mine as higher value as it certainly has a lot of life on it. But my suspicion is that I should probably be feeling a little guilty that insects are wasting journey to these for little or no return.

This has been at odds with my desire to encourage wildlife into my garden. I love the hydrangeas but they aren’t adding much benefit to the wildlife while taking up quite a bit of space. However, a bit of research has shown some types do still offer wildlife benefits. The RHS Plants for pollinators lists Hydrangea paniculata as beneficial with Kyushu, Big Ben, Floribunda and Brussels Lace having more fertile flowers. Unfortunately, I have limelight where only the flowers at the tip are fertile. That said, I’ve seen many butterflies stopping for good periods. I doubt they would stop so long if they weren’t getting some benefit. The RHS trials list more details of fertility.

I also discovered that many of the lacecaps have fertile flowers. The outer ring of larger flowers offers no benefits to pollinators, but the smaller inner flowers do.

The thin stems, lack of height mean hydrangeas don’t offer many benefits for birds. Sparrows perch on mine to survey the garden, but they aren’t suitable for nesting. However, the understory of my hydrangeas show lots of life. I keep a few logs under to provide homes for woodlice and beetles. Few plants can grow underneath as the the leaves stop the light to the ground. But the mass watering they receive means the ground is moist for frogs. I’ve needed to remove builder crud a few times recently and each time I’ve disturbed a horde of frogs. While I can’t argue that hydrangeas are high value to wildlife they aren’t devoid of benefits.

The climbing hydrangea is one of the few exceptions. It provides a good level of cover for many creatures and the small florets are great for small bees and hoverflies.

Variety

For many people when they think of hydrangeas I think they just imagine the rounded balls of the mopheads but there are many more types on offer. The paniculata offers cones in lime green, white pink and purple. The climbing hydrangea offers a reliable climber that can cover fences or house with a stunning layer of foliage without much hassle supporting as it largely finds its own way. The lacecaps offer more delicate flowers. The oakleaf offers stunning large-leaved foliage and gorgeous white flowers. The more recent developments with the award-winning runaway bride offers a variety with a mass of flowers suited to a pot for a display with a long season of interest. There are choices for everyone and many different situations.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my exploration of hydrangeas and if nothing else found some pleasure in the photos.

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11 thoughts on “In defence of hydrangeas”

  1. They grow everywhere here in Cornwall, all colours too. I saw a particularly lovely dark red yesterday. And I like the ones with the dark foliage too. I think yours look fab on the patio there.

    Liked by 1 person

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