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A Summer Classic

By Anne Halpin

The billowy blue hydrangea is the iconic summer flower of the East End of Long Island. Bushes covered with blue balls of blossoms echoing the summer sky are everywhere in summer gardens on both the North and South Forks. Much as we love it, the classic hydrangea is not without its downside. Deer love to eat them, especially in winter when they will nibble the tips of the stems. That, in turn, eliminates next summer’s flowers, as does pruning the plants at the wrong time of year. This type of hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) produces next year’s flowers on stems that grow this year. Deer nibbling or pruning in winter or spring can prevent the plant from blooming next summer. But this is a problem with solutions.

First, newer varieties of hydrangeas, such as Endless Summer, produce flowers on both new and old stems, so even if last year’s stems are nipped, this year’s new stems should provide some bloom. Adding some of these newer varieties to your landscape gives you blossom insurance. And don’t forget to use deer repellent. Second, if you must prune the plants to keep them at a particular height and you are growing an older hydrangea variety, you can cut back half of the stems in any given year and let the rest grow. Then next year cut back those taller stems. By alternating what you prune each year, you will have flowers every year.

Third, there are other kinds of hydrangeas in addition to the blue ones that are equally lovely in gardens and landscapes, and you can add one or more of them to your garden. The smooth-leaved hydrangea (Hydrangea aborescens) is versatile and easy to care for. The best known variety, widely grown here, is Annabelle, which sends out masses of big, white snowball flowerheads in summer, on stems that grow the same year they bloom. The plants can grow tall over time, but it’s easy to control their height by cutting back the plants in spring. Just cut back all the stems or, if you have a large, mature plant, you might like to cut the stems in front shorter and the ones behind a bit taller so you’ll have flowers on multiple levels. After you experiment for a few years you will figure out how far back to cut the stems in order to get flowers at the height you want.

A member of the hydrangea clan that deserves to be better known is the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), a lovely shrub that grows to 6 feet or less, with lobed leaves resembling oak leaves, and in late summer to fall, cone-shaped clusters of white flowers, some of which take on a pink tinge as they age. Another bonus: the leaves turn rich bronzy purple in fall, and in winter the attractive, peeling russet-brown bark on the stems is visible.

Another standout, the panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) is a taller and more treelike shrub, and blooms in late summer to early fall. This hydrangea can provide a vertical anchor in a bed of perennials or a backdrop in a border. You may also spot them in traffic islands around the area. The conical clusters of flowers are large and white, and the branches can arch under their weight. One favorite is the peegee hydrangea (the nickname derives from its botanical name, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’). Another showstopper is the variety Tardiva, whose flowerheads are especially large and late blooming. They are beautiful additions to late-season landscapes.

My personal favorite among hydrangeas is the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris). I am a lover of vines, which are so versatile in the landscape, but the climbing hydrangea is a queen among climbers. This clinging vine will climb the side of a building without any supporting trellis, and it’s not damaging like ivy can be. But this graceful plant is at its absolute best climbing a tall tree. The lacy white flowers are delicately textured like the lacecap forms of the classic blue hydrangea. And when flowering ends and the leaves drop in winter, you can enjoy the plant’s shaggy, peeling, cinnamon-colored bark. If deer are an issue on your property, protect your climbing hydrangea with a shield of wire mesh until the plant grows tall enough that the flowers are beyond their reach. Then enjoy this most beautiful addition to your landscape.