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Pacific Northwest: Mopheads and More

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BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, Zone 8

I figure it's safe to say that hydrangeas are back in style when Heronswood Nursery lists 78 different selections in its 2002 catalog. They've never really been out of favor in the damp and shady Northwest, despite the fact we're better known for rhododendrons. I've always wondered why that is—rhodies sit there like green blobs all summer, after providing only a couple of weeks of jarringly bright springtime blooms, while hydrangeas flower for months in a range of subtle shades and intriguing forms.

Hydrangeas aren't stand-alone shrubs, though—when you think of a leggy hydrangea planted in a cut-out circle of lawn, you may understand why they've been disparaged. Hydrangeas look their best when massed together, skirting tree trunks, or grouped with perennials and other shrubs. Ideal companions include Sambucus nigra ‘Purpurea’, astilbes, ferns, and Japanese maples. In addition to the right garden-mates, hydrangeas require plenty of moisture and manure to plump up to their full potential. My mother's classic mopheads were magnificent, grown large on a steady diet of composted manure scooped from my father's racing pigeon lofts.

Many of the loveliest cultivars originate in Belgium, Switzerland, France, and England. The most inspiring of hydrangea books is translated from the French, and worth tracking down for its glorious photos of hydrangeas in the landscape. Hydrangeas: Species and Cultivars, by Corinne Mallet (Centre d'Art Floral, 1992) shows atmospheric sweeps of hydrangeas in arboreta around the world, as well as closeups of luscious blossoms in all possible shades, from pearly white through the pinks to deep blue. After seeing their portraits, no doubt you'll want to track down the following selections.

Hydrangea serrata ‘Preziosa’ (pictured; USDA Zones 6-7) has small mophead-shaped flowers with lacy centers, whose pink coloration is shown off by purple stems. Its true distinction is the range of color on one plant, from cream through all the shades of pink to ruby red (no blue, even in acid soils), turning an elegant bronze late in the season.

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ (Zones 5-9) combines the handsome jagged leaves of the oakleaf hydrangea with the sturdy white conical heads of the most alluringly old-fashioned paniculata. When given a sunny spot, the fall foliage turns vibrant shades of crimson and burgundy.

Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana(Zones 7-9) grows tall and gaunt, an ideal overstory for more compact hydrangeas. The tropical look of its large, velvety leaves belies its delicate, plate-size lacecap flowers in tones of white, pale blue, and mauve.

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ (Zones 3-8) has huge, round flower heads made up of tiny blossoms that begin as a creamy white and fade to soft green. By summer's end it resembles a leafy green dome dotted with fluffy chartreuse basketballs.

Worth growing

Rosa ‘Ghislaine de Feligonde’

Choosing roses can be tricky in the Northwest where rose foliage is so often disfigured by black spot. ‘Ghislaine de Feligonde’ is a fine choice, for it is vigorous and long blooming with disease-free foliage, even in a soggy summer. A multiflora rambler, it can be pruned as a large shrub or grown as a climber. It has long been appreciated for its lack of thorns, tolerance of light shade, sweet scent, and small double flowers that range from warm cream through yellow to apricot. Zones 6-9.

To do in the garden

  • Misty mornings can be deceptive, and light summer rain rarely penetrates the soil sufficiently to dampen roots. Thirsty plants like hostas, roses, cannas, clematis, and hydrangeas-as well as those in the vegetable garden-need a deep and thorough watering. Be sure to douse plants beneath the eaves and under trees, as well.
  • Container plantings will continue blooming until frost, if encouraged now with regular watering, fertilizing, and deadheading. Hanging pots, and those made of terra-cotta, often need watering twice a day when the weather is warm and days are long.
  • Snip off faded blooms of roses, daylilies, fuchsias, sweet peas, and pansies to keep them blooming through the summer.