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Hydrangeas: Heaven in the Southern Garden

Flowers are the sweetest thing God ever made and forgot to put a soul into.
– Henry Beecher –

I love flowers. I never met a flower I didn’t like, from lilies to orchids, from roses to pansies, from tulips to gardenias. But nothing says a Southern garden to me like hydrangeas. Five generations of women in my family have claimed it as their favorite flower, and I think my granddaughter, the sixth generation, is a convert as well. With their immense flower heads, hydrangeas have an old-fashioned charm that is hard to resist. 

I fell in love with hydrangeas as a child under the tutelage of a grandfather that loved them as well. Spring and summer meant a profusion of pink and blue blooms that made the garden sing. They looked beautiful in the house as well, and I still have the old crystal vase that held bouquets of hydrangeas on the foyer table.

I figured out early on that the colors changed from year to year, and I frequently asked my grandfather what caused the change. Last year’s blue bed might be this year’s pink. “It’s because I talk to them,” he’d always reply, and so I spent no small amount of time whispering to the blooms that I would like them to be yellow, or purple or orange the next day. Needless to say, the flowers did not respond to my urging, but I never stopped trying to persuade them.

We are blessed to own a home that is covered in hydrangeas. Mopheads, panicles and lacecaps form borders and beautify beds in our yard throughout late Spring and Summer. Wanting to be the very best caregiver of these shrubs, I have made it a priority to learn more about them. My family often referred to the Bigleaf or Mophead hydrangea that I love so much as French hydrangea. I am a bit of a Francophile, so it pleased me to no end that the hydrangea was of French origin, or so I thought. This showy shrub is not French, but was hybridized by the French about 100 years ago.

French hydrangeas are a living litmus test of the soil because the color of the blooms will tell you whether your soil is acid or alkaline. So much for talking to them! There is actually a much better way to experiment with changing the color of your hydrangeas.

In acid soils, the flowers will be blue. To turn flowers blue, dissolve 1 tablespoon of alum (aluminum sulfate) in a gallon of water and drench the plant in March, April and May.

In alkaline soils, the flowers will be pink. To turn flowers pink, dissolve 1 tablespoon of hydrated lime in a gallon of water and drench the soil in March, April and May. Take care not to damage the leaves of the shrub during this process.

Whether you prefer single plants, massed plants, containers or shrub borders, there is a variety of hydrangea that fits every taste. If you want to plant hydrangeas, look for a place in your garden that gets morning sun, but afternoon shade. The best time to plant hydrangeas is in the Fall, after the intense heat of summer has passed.

Don’t forget to prune your hydrangeas right after blooming, in mid to late summer. As you can see, hydrangeas that have been pruned have a unique beauty of their own. I couldn’t resist keeping a few of these dried blooms. This large bread bowl filled with my hydrangeas made the perfect centerpiece for our farm table at a recent celebration. There are all sorts of ways to dry, display and arrange hydrangeas, but that is a blog post for another day.

Joyfully,

Karen

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