my summer love – the hydrangea

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Hovaria Hopcorn Blue’ (Hortensia) – -L. Fowler

Like puffs of cotton candy, the summer hydrangea – sweet and nostalgic in summer and evoking saudade as it fades in the fall, a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness with the passing of the season – I will always anticipate the return of my summer love…. hydrangea

Recently, a visitor to the Newhalem Gardens asked me “what is your favorite flower?” and for an Ornamental Horticulturist……this is a tough question. To look at the re-developed beds along Main Street, you would guess my favorite is Rudbeckia. Sprinkled throughout, these bright sunny faces greet the visitor and offer an incredible show stopping performance from late summer through fall; even after the blooms have faded, they have winter interest with stout stalks that hold up through the frost and snow of early winter. I also confess to having brief dalliances with Sunflowers Helianthus – in all their glorious offerings – easily propagated they make a dramatic statement sprinkled into the summer beds. I love watching the pollinators dine in summer and in fall the birds feed on seeds.

Gorge Inn, Main Street Newhalem, WA

But my hydrangeas – oak leaf, climbing, mop head, or mountain. They are my true ‘summer loves’. Steadfast and charming – what more could you want from a love interest?

My affair with this chameleon shrub dates back to visiting Eugene, OR over 25 years ago. I couldn’t help but notice large vibrant purple, pink and blue flowered shrubs adorning the yards on tree lined streets. In a city known for its Azalea and Rhododendron gardens, I was enchanted with these shrubs that were in full bloom long after show of Rhododendrons had left the stage. Although used in the landscape traditionally – kind of ‘grandma’ garden style, they evoked a feeling of nostalgia. I just had to have these these in our home garden in Bend, OR. So upon return, we visited our local nursery and found a small mop-head (I remember it being a small compact shrub, probably more appropriate as a Mother’s Day Gift) and placed it in the landscape. It really didn’t thrive. Not enough water….. not long enough growing season….to hot…to cold…who knows. It just didn’t like Bend. My relationship with hydrangeas had a rocky start.

I tried again when the family relocated to Depoe Bay, OR and ta-dah! love match made. The coastal climate was a balm for number of varieties that struggled in the high desert of Bend, and I became enraptured with Pee-gees, Limelight and Pistachio…I was smitten. They were prolific and the late summer color and structure gave our garden, which could be described as a cross between chaos theory and eclectic style, continuity and graceful form. They tied it all together.

In this moment, I knew my love affair with hydrangeas would endure and grow through life’s seasons.

Depoe Bay photo l. fowler

Recently I read that the hydrangea has experienced a Renaissance and that it was no longer considered the dated shrub under the windows and along fence-lines at Grandma’s house. The American public is infatuated with them, and this fascination with all things hydrangea is reflected in the variety modern breeders have responded with. A range of colors and styles, sporting names like Blushing Bride, Vanilla Strawberry, and Endless Summer can be found at any nursery and today’s hydrangea is celebrated on covers of fashionable magazines, extolling the virtues of abundance and bloom. You will see it featured in social media, and numerous Blogs…like this… and all confessing to a recurring summer love affair.

in 2018, a hydrangea received the coveted Plant of the Year Award at the prestigious Royal Horticulture Society Chelsea Flower Show. Based in the U.K

The Shamrock Garden Hydrangea Collection, at Varengeville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France photo – trip advisor

how hydrangea won the west….a very brief history

Historically, in North America, the hydrangea enjoys an important place in history. Documents show that in 1792, George Washington planted a native hydrangea, H. arborescens, at Mount Vernon, as did  Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and James Madison’s home, Montpelier boasts hydrangeas that descended from seeds purchased from Bartram’s Nursery in Philadelphia.

John Bartram “the greatest natural botanist in the world.”

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and originator of the system of taxonomic classification

John and William Bartram, father and son, bound by their common interests and passion for exploration, were know for their discoveries and generosity in sharing these findings. John Bartram, farmer and hobby botanist, was the first American-born colonist recognized by leading European scientists and William Bartram having the advantage of his fathers connections and a formal education, cultivated relationships and a reputation among America’s and Europe’s elite horticulturists.

200 year old seed pack discovered under floorboards Hydrangea macrophylla, a.k.a. French hydrangea or blue Hortensia, labeled by William Hamilton of the Woodlands as “Hydrangea mutabilis,” which he described as “a most beautiful flowered shrub from China.”

“Bartram’s boxes

With specially devised wooden crates, precious seeds and specimens were sent to a wide variety of clients in Britain. For five guineas, clients received a container of generally 100 or more varieties of seeds, as well as occasional dried plant specimens and natural history curiosities. Despite the dangers of a sea voyage to tender seeds, including seawater, rats, and theft, many happily made it to their destinations.

John Bartram first came across H. arborescens in the 1730’s. Hydrangea arborescens, commonly known as smooth hydrangea, wild hydrangea, sevenbark, or in some cases, sheep flower

From the Journal of William Bratram, 1775

NEXT day we travelled about twenty miles farther, crossing two considerable creeks named Great and Little Tobosochte, and at evening encamped close by a beautiful large brook called Sweet Water, the glittering wavy flood passing along actively over a bed of pebbles and gravel. The territory through which we passed from the banks of the Oakmulge to this place, exhibited a delightful diversified rural scene, and promises a happy, fruitful and salubrious region, when cultivated by industrious inhabitants, generally ridges of low swelling hills and plains supporting grand forests, vast Cane meadows, savannas and verdant lawns.
I OBSERVED here a very singular and beatiful shrub, which I suppose is a species of Hygrangia (H. quercifolia). It growsin coppices or clumps near or on the banks of rivers and creeks; many stems usually arise from a root, spreading itself greatly on all sides by suckers or offsets; It grows the stems grow five or six feet high, declining or diverging from each other, and are covered with several barks or rinds, the last of which being of a cinerious dirt colour and very thin, at a certain age of the stems or shoots, cracks through to the next bark, and is peeled off by the winds, discovering the under, smooth, dark reddish brown bark, which also cracks and peels off the next year, in like manner as the former; thus every year forming a new bark; the stems divide regularly or oppositely, though the branches are crooked or wreathe about horizontally, and these again divide, forming others which terminate with large heavy pannicles or thyrsi of flowers, but these flowers are of two kinds; the numerous partial spikes which compose the pannicles and consist of a multitude of very small fruitful flowers, terminate with one or more very large expansive neutral or mock flowers, standing on a long, slender, stiff peduncle; these flowers are composed of four broad oval petals or segments, of a dark rose or crimson colour at first, but as they become older acquire a deeper red or purplish hue, and lastly are of a brown or ferruginous colour; these have no perfect parts of generation of either sex, but discover in their centre two, three or four papiliae or rudiments; these neutral flowers, with the whole pannicle, are truly permanent, remaining on the plant for years, until they dry and decay; the leaves which clothe the plants are very large, pinnatifid or palmated and serrated, or toothed, very much resembling the leaves of some of our Oaks; they sit opposite, supported by slender petioles and are of a fine, full green colour
William Bartram discovered H. quercifolia, oak leaf hydrangea, while traveling through Crawford County, Georgia

east hydrangeas meet the west

With a long documented history in Japan, it is believed they may have originated there. During the Tang Dynasty in China, 618-907 A.D. diplomats from Japan brought them to Hangshou, China and from there they spread throughout Asia.

“On the day, (Buddha’s birthday) we urge visitors to recall the preciousness of life by ladling sweet tea over a statue of Buddha in the garden.”

Shobo Shimizu, monk at Chokohu-ji Temple Tokoyo, Japan

Japanese culture celebrates the hydrangea with the popular Ajisai festivals during the blooming seasons of late spring and summer. They grace the gardens and grounds of Buddhist temples and on April 8th, amacha (tea of heaven) is brewed from the leaves of Hydrangea serrata.

                    "Tea of Heaven"
In Buddhist tradition, young hydrangea leaves are dried out and used to make ceremonial tea and in Japan on April 8th, Buddha's birthday the occasion is celebrated by pouring sweet tea onto a small statue of baby Buddha in the garden of a temple. According to legend, when Buddha was born in Nepal on April 8, 566 B.C., many beautiful lotus flowers blossomed from the earth and surrounded him while celestial birds sang songs. Perfumed blossoms rained down from heaven, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe him. Pouring sweet tea symbolizes the scene.
Native to Japan and Korea, Hydrangea serrata ‘Beni Gaku’ (Mountain Hydrangea) is compact deciduous shrub with delicate lacecap flowers with flattened clusters early to late summer.

For centuries the island of Japan was not open to foreigners for cultural and religious reasons, and had it not been for two Dutch India Company adventurers, Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1715) and Carl Peter Thumberg (1743-1828) searching for new medicinal plants, the West may not have known about these wonderful shrubs or their role in Japanese life and culture. Even then, Carl Thumburg used a ruse of collecting fodder for his goat to collect two hydrangeas in Japan. He described them as Viburnum macrophyllum and Vibernum serratum and was later credited for the final names given to Hydrangea macrophylla and Hydrangea serrata.

‘Ever Peppermint’ Hydrangea photo l.fowler

If you are looking for more information about Hydrangeas – these links from the National Garden Bureau Members are loaded with educational information from experts in the horticultural field…..


Documenting the South,Bartram, William, 1739-1823

Bartrams Garden, Found in Floorboards

additional reading

Journal 26-2015 Friends of the “Shamrock” Hydrangea Collection

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