Hydrangeas now hold their heads up high

KENNEWICK -- In the past, many gardeners who fancied hydrangeas were stymied because these flowering shrubs were notoriously unreliable bloomers and not exceptionally winter hardy.

Plus, weak stems supporting the large hydrangea flowers often flopped over under their weight.

These hydrangea problems are the type of challenge that motivates plant breeders. Taking up the gauntlet, plant breeders have worked to improve these flowering shrubs for today's home landscapes. There now is a growing list of hardy hydrangea that bloom reliably and don't have droopy flowers.

A number of these were developed by Spring Meadow Nursery and are being marketed by Proven Winners.

One series are hardy hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata). The hardy hydrangea is not new to American gardens. The 'Pee Gee' cultivar has been around since 1867 and is well known for it's hardiness and its very large flowers. Their biggest selling point was their dependable mid-summer bloom with flowers that develop from buds that were formed in early summer.

Spring Meadow's newest hardy hydrangea is 'Bobo' a compact dwarf shrub (3 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide) that produces an abundance of white flowers with a tinge of pink. An early bloomer, 'Bobo' is a great addition to today's home landscapes.

Spring Meadow's other popular hardy hydrangeas include 'Limelight,' 'Little Lime,' 'Little Lamb,' 'Quick Fire,' and 'Pinky Winky.' As the name implies, the flowers of 'Limelight" are a soft green that change to pink in the fall. Not a dwarf, it can reach a height of 8 feet. 'Limelight' is adaptable to sun or shade and different soil types. 'Little Lime' is a dwarf form that only reaches a height of 3 to 5 feet.

'Pinky Winky' is a show stopper with its abundant two-toned pink flower heads that reach a size of 12 to 16 inches in length. Not a dwarf, the shrub reaches a height of 6 to 8 feet. 'Little Lamb' has smaller, pink-tinged flowers and grows to a height of 4 to 6 feet.

Plant breeders didn't just turn their attention to the hardy hydrangea. They also have put considerable effort into making Hydrangea macrophylla more garden friendly. Hydrangea macrophylla (better known as bigleaf, mophead or lacecap hydrangea) has flowers that range from blue to purple to pink, depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. In acid soils, the aluminum in soil is more readily available and the flowers are blue. In alkaline soils, the aluminum is not available and the flowers are pink. The flower form of Hydrangea macrophylla varies from the blowsy mopheads to the lacy flat-topped lacecaps. I personally prefer the lacecaps, but the large mophead flowers can be astounding.

Bailey Nurseries has introduced the Endless Summer collection of repeat blooming hydrangeas. One of the newest in the Endless Summer series is 'Twist-n-Shout,' with lacecap flowers that will be pink in our local alkaline soils. Not only is it a very reliable repeat bloomer, its leaves turn an attractive burgundy red in the fall. While it's winter hardy in our area, it's recommended that you plant it in partial shade. It grows 3 to 5 feet tall and wide.

Proven Winners also has a several lines of Hydrangea macrophylla. 'Let's Dance Moonlight' is one of their most popular because it is a strong rebloomer, grows to 2 to 3 feet tall, and has rich pink (or blue) mophead flowers.

You already may have noticed the proliferation of hydrangea available at local nurseries. I suggest trying a few, especially the compact dwarf forms that can easily be added to your landscape or perennial border.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.