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The Other Hydrangeas

For those of us lucky enough to live on the East End year-round, it’s not the summer social scene we treasure, or the summer crowds. What makes this place so special is the sheer beauty of the landscape in all of its diversity. Gardens are important additions to that landscape, and arguably the queen of East End flower gardens is the hydrangea. The iconic summer flower of the East End, those magnificent blue balls of flowers echo the color of the summer sky above.

Hydrangeas are vigorous and relatively easy to grow, but they can break your heart if you don’t know that pruning to shape them or limit their size, unless you know the right time to do it, can prevent them from putting on their azure finery and leave you with very ordinary looking green bushes. Some newer varieties solve that problem by producing flowers anyway (they bloom on both new and old growth) but the display may not be quite the show you’re hoping for. Those blue hydrangeas are ubiquitous here, but there are other hydrangeas, too, equally beautiful, that can play different roles in gardens and landscapes and are more easy going. Smart landscapers and savvy homeowners deploy these other members of the hydrangea clan to dazzling effect in gardens and landscapes. Here are four to know.

Smooth-leaved hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), especially the well-known variety Annabelle, is versatile and undemanding. The plants produce huge white snowballs – lots of them—in early summer, on tall, straight stems lined with rich green leaves. Versatile and undemanding, the plants will grow in sunny or lightly shady locations. Let them form a clump, or plant them in a row for a screen, divider or backdrop for other plants. This hydrangea can grow quite tall, but you can cut it back to a manageable height in early spring, and it will still reward you with flowers. In fact, this yearly pruning is a good way to keep the plants to a height where the flowers are easy to see (and to cut for the vase). After blooming the plants can serve as a lush green backdrop for later bloomers in the landscape, such as daylilies or shrub roses.

Not all hydrangeas are bushy. One of them, the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) is a vine of exquisite beauty. This elegant plant has long, woody stems sheathed in shaggy, cinnamon-colored bark and is at its best climbing the trunk of a tall tree (it won’t hurt the tree). In summer large, lacy white flat-topped flower clusters bloom against deep green leaves. The plants can grow on a sturdy trellis, too, but don’t grow them on a shingled wall, where the clinging stems could cause damage. Like all hydrangeas, this one loses its leaves in fall. When the plants are bare the beauty of the richly textured russet bark glows in the wintry landscape.

For smaller spaces consider the oakleaf hydrangea, a beauty from spring to late fall. The compact shrub grows 4 to 6 feet high, and its rich green leaves are lobed, similar to those of oak trees (its obvious namesake). From midsummer into fall the plants show off large cone-shaped clusters of pure white flowers. They last a long time, taking on pinkish tones as they age, sometimes turning completely pink. As autumn descends, those green leaves deepen to purple-bronze or burgundy. Oakleaf can handle more sun than the classic blue ones, and it can also tolerate drier soil. What it can’t handle is wet, soggy soil. Give it decent drainage and it’s a real stunner.

Finally, the latest bloomer, the peegee hydrangea, its nickname taken from its botanical name, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’. This woody shrub becomes almost treelike over time, and in late summer its white round to oval flower heads cover the plants. It can be a star in late-season landscapes. The long-lasting flowers show a lovely blush pink tinge over time. A favorite variety, Tardiva, bears large cone-shaped flowerheads of creamy white in fall, often blooming into October here.

These “other” hydrangeas bring their own special beauties to North Fork landscapes. Expand your hydrangea horizons!