Hydrangeas have always been a favoured architectural and ornamental plant for every style of garden, from bountiful border bushes in cottage gardens, to neat and tidy container plants for urban balconies.
In this post, I’m going to look at the amazing heritage of Hydrangeas (dating back over 23 million years!), but first, let’s look at the popularity of the flower in today’s world.
This chart from Google shows two notable peaks in interest each year in May and July, around the time when most Hydrangea varieties are in season. However, this interest has increased significantly over time, to the point where Hydrangeas are 12.5 times as popular in May 2020 as they were in May 2004!
So why are Hydrangeas so popular in 2020? You could say that plants in general are more popular due to a rise in accessibility, information on the health benefits of plants, and awareness of design trends. However, if we look at a similar chart for roses, one of the most traditional and beloved flowers of all time, interest has remained fairly stable over the last 16 years.
One reason for the Hydrangea’s recent popularity could be The RHS! The RHS crowned two Hydrangeas as winners of recent Plant of the Year Awards: ‘Miss Saori’ (2014 winner) and ‘Runaway Bride’ (2018 winner). This award has a bearing on what is sold by garden centres and plant shops (and therefore what you plant in your garden), what’s planted in public gardens and displays, what’s offered by florists, and even what other growers produce (if they see a huge rise in the popularity of Hydrangeas, they might try to produce their own show-stopping variety).
So there’s no wonder why Hydrangeas are suddenly popping up everywhere from your neighbours back garden to Zara Phillips’ wedding bouquet!
The history of Hydrangeas
As I said earlier, the history of Hydrangeas dates back to over 23 million years ago! A fossil species called Hydrangea alaskana was recovered from Jaw Mountain in Alaska, USA, from a section of rock dating back to the paleogene period (which dates from 66 million to 23 million years ago).
Fossils have also been discovered more recently in Asia, the continent with which Hydrangeas are more strongly associated and where it is recorded that people first started cultivating the species, thousands of years ago.
Asian varieties first made their way to Europe in 1775, when Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg brought five plants back to the continent when returning from a trip to Asia. Since then, the plant has been ever popular in gardens across the Northern Hemisphere, where it is best suited to the cooler, wetter climate.
The different types of Hydrangeas
There are around 70-75 species of Hydrangeas, and over 600 named cultivars. The Hydrangea can be broken down into five types, to make it easier to find the right variety for your garden!
The five types of Hydrangea are:
- Macrophylla (Bigleaf or French Hydrangea)
- Smooth (Tree Hydrangea)
These are the most common type of Hydrangea, and they’re known by their scientific name, Hydrangea macrophylla. They have, as their common name suggests, big leaves! To make things a little more complicated, there are three types of these Hydrangeas:
- Mophead: These have large, full flowerheads which come in purple, pink or blue. You can influence the colour based on the acidity of your soil.
- Lacecap: These have a centre of tiny flower buds, surrounded by pretty individual flowers.
- Mountain: These are similar in appearance to lacecaps, except for having smaller flowers and leaves. They are far more hardy and can survive late winter cold snaps.
Images c/o Pixabay
Native to the USA, smooth Hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) are huge in size, growing to around 6ft tall, and often referred to as a ‘tree’! They produce flowers that start life green and change to white with age. They’re tolerant of hotter climates and bloom from July to September.
Hydrangea paniculata and grandiflora types produce cone-shaped blooms instead of round headed ones. These cultivars often start as white and turn pink with age. Native to East Asia, most are cold-hardy, but do require several hours of sunlight. They flower from late-summer, and their blooms have great longevity, and the pruning is easy.
These Hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) are named for their foliage, which looks like the leaves of an Oak tree. And just like an Oak tree, their leaves change colour in autumn (this is the only type of Hydrangea with this ability). Its flowerheads are similar to Panicle Hydrangeas, and they come in single-blossom or double-blossom varieties; these start as white and turn to pink over time. Native to the USA, these Hydrangeas can tolerate drier conditions, as well as being winter-hardy.
Hydrangea animola ssp. petiolaris is very different from other types of Hydrangeas, because it’s actually a vine! Native to Asia, it’s often called the Japanese Hydrangea vine. It can climb up to 80ft, but reaching this goal takes a patient gardener – the plant can take up to four years to show any signs of growth. However, once matured, the lacecap-like blooms are known for their fragrance, and the whole plant will be perfectly happy in deep shade.
Hydrangea ‘Magical Candle’
The Hydrangea paniculata ‘Magical Candle’ boasts large conical heads of colour-changing blooms that turn from green-toned white to deep pink as the year goes on, sat atop dark green foliage. Easy to grow and maintain, this hardy plant will bring interest and colour to your garden year after year.
Producing blooms all summer and well into autumn, this plant has a flowering period of July to October. Plant Hydrangea paniculata ‘Magical Candle’ in moist, well-drained soil – just as you would with any other paniculata cultivar, and position it in full sun (though it will tolerate partial shade).
With little maintenance required apart from watering and a few light feeds in spring and summer, this beautiful plant will reach a mature size of 150cm in height and width! What’s more, it’s fully hardy, which means you’ll get jaw-dropping flowers year after year. It’s a beautiful choice for a decorative garden plant!
Pruning is easy, just trim back after flowering, right down to the base. They always flower on new wood, so you’re less at risk of accidentally cutting off a flowering stem, as can often happen with macrophylla types!
More Hydrangea ideas for your garden
Hydrangea Pinky Winky Shrub
Pinky Winky will produce long spikes of blooms throughout summer and autumn, which start off white and then change to pink giving a beautiful two-tone effect. Boasting stunning red stems that will add to the overall effect this beautiful hydrangea, creating an interesting focal point to your garden throughout the year.
This variety of Hydrangea features pink lace cap flowers adorned on the top of green leaves. This gorgeous hardy shrub will bloom through the summer and into autumn, creating a wonderful display in containers or beds and borders, year after year.
Hydrangea Dark Angel Blue
These fully hardy Hydrangeas feature gorgeous leaves that are deep green in colour with flushes of purple bronze tones, topped with lace cap purple-blue petals with a cream centre. These stunning flowers last through June to October, and can also be left over the winter to provide protection to new buds, while giving an elegant winter display.
Hydrangea Runaway Bride
Unlike typical Hydrangeas that produce just one bloom on the end of each branch, these highly floriferous ‘Runaway Bride’ Hydrangeas produce a profusion of flowers along gently trailing stems. Neat, compact and perfectly hardy, these exceptionally elegant shrubs will create a showy display on your patio or in mixed borders.
Hydrangea Miss Saori
This breed of Hydrangeas was RHS Chelsea Flower Show’s Plant of the Year in 2014, featuring sterile, double, white blooms with a soft rose-coloured margin, giving the large rounded flower heads a delicate, frothy appearance that will remain the same colour regardless of your soil type. Set against a backdrop of lush green foliage, this superb specimen shrub will provide long-lasting interest to your borders and patio containers.
What’s your favourite type of Hydrangea? Let me know in the comments below!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan. Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.