It’s Hydrangea Time!

May 26, 2010 | By | Comments (25)

What azaleas mean to the spring garden, hydrangeas mean to the summer garden. And this year looks like the best year for hydrangeas yet.

Hydrangeas 019

The ones above are my original ‘Endless Summer.’ I’ve criticized this much-hyped plant in the past, for not putting on the show that was advertised. But I have no complaints this year. The blooms are spectacular.

Why? I think it has a lot to do with our weather. First, we received a lot of rain last summer with no withering droughts to stunt plants. Second, we had a very long, cool spring with no sudden freezes to kill flower buds.

As you see as you read further down the page (and, indeed, how could anyone in their right mind stop?), you’ll see hydrangeas come in many colors, sizes, and forms. Are there a few key questions that Grumpy can answer to help you decide which ones to try and how to grow? But of course.

What are French hydrangeas and why are they called that?

French hydrangeas, (Hydrangea macrophylla) are the most popular species, due to their very showy clusters of blue, purple, pink, or even red flowers. They’re also known as bigleaf hydrangeas, because of their large, tooth-edged leaves. They’re not French. They’re actually native to Japan. People call them “French” because many of the most popular selections were made in France. Selections of a similar species, Hydrangea serrata, are often lumped in with French hydrangeas.

What is a “mophead” and what is a “lacecap?”

These terms refer to the structure and shape of the bloom cluster. Each bloom consists of two types of flowers — tiny, fertile flowers that produce seed; and large, showy, sterile flowers that are just for show. With mophead blooms, the fertile flowers are hidden side large, snowball-shaped clusters of sterile flowers. Lacecap blooms, on the other hand, display a ring of showy, sterile flowers around a visible disc of fertile flowers. The fertile flowers may be blue, pink, or white and a completely different color than the sterile flowers. Mopheads are showier from a distance. Lacecaps are elegant up close.


Hydrangeas Pia

 Hydrangea macrophylla  ‘Pia’ — a compact mophead with nice pink flowers. I love it.


Hydrangeas 001 Taube

 Hydrangea macrophylla  ‘Taube’ — a beautiful lacecap with pink sterile and fertile flowers.


How can I turn pink hydrangeas blue and vice-versa?

French hydrangeas are unique in the fact that the soil pH affects the flower color. Acid soil turns flowers blue, alkaline soil turns them pink, and near-neutral soil turns them purple or half blue and half pink. The causative agent for blue color is the aluminum ion. It’s available to plants in acid soil, but not in alkaline soil. To acidify soil, add chopped oak leaves, sphagnum peat moss, pine straw, coffee grounds, iron sulfate, and garden sulfur. To make soil alkaline, add lime. Don’t expect overnight results. The change takes at least a year.

Hydrangeas 018

To show you what I mean about soil and color, look at the hydrangea above. It’s a H. serrata called ‘Blue Billow.’ Not very blue, is it? The soil has turned the sterile flowers pink. You’ll notice many of the hydrangeas you buy at garden centers bloom pink the first year. That’s because the soil mix in the pots is slightly alkaline. Once you plant them in acid soil, however, they’ll turn blue. Exceptions — selections like ‘Pia,’ ‘Ami Pasquier,’ and ‘Westfalen.’ They’re less sensitive to aluminum and stay pink even in acid soil.

What kind of light and soil do French hydrangeas need?

To bloom well, they need at least half a day of sun, preferably morning sun. Dappled sun/shade is OK too. They like fertile, well-drained, moist soil that contains lots of organic matter. Regular watering is required in summer, so don’t plant them where you can’t water.

Hydrangeas 016

Hydrangea serrata ‘Purple Tiers’ — its flowers remind me of African violets.

When should I prune my hydrangeas?

That depends on the selection. Some, such as the dependable and ever-popular ‘Nikko Blue,’ bloom on buds made the previous year. So if you prune in fall, winter, or spring, you won’t get any flowers. Instead, prune immediately after its flowers fade in summer. Other selections, such as ‘All-Summer Beauty,’ ‘Penny Mac’ (below), the Endless Summer Series, and the Forever & Ever Series, bloom on both old growth and new growth. So you can prune them anytime and still get flowers. All that being said, most French hydrangeas need very little pruning.

Hydrangeas 010

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Penny Mac’ — named for Penny McHenry, a wonderful friend to many.

Hydrangeas 004 Twist &

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Edgy Hearts.’ A new showstopper from Proven Winners.

Why won’t my dang hydrangea bloom?

Maybe it gets too much shade. Maybe you pruned it at the wrong time. Maybe a late winter or early spring cold snap killed the flowers. Or maybe it just doesn’t like you.

Hydrangeas 006

Grumpy gives a shout-out to Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Endless Summer Twist ‘n’ Shout.’


Where I can buy hydrangeas?

Hydrangeas 009

Well, if you live near a really good garden center (like Myer’s Plants & Pottery in Pelham, AL), you’ll usually find a good selection. Or you can order through the mail. Wilkerson Mill Gardens is an excellent source.


  1. Not Your Mama’s Butterfly Bush | Everything Country

    […] Other Great Articles For You, Dear ReaderIt’s Hydrangea Time! […]

    July 26, 2015 at 11:52 am
  2. Not Your Mama’s Butterfly Bush | Southern Living Blog

    […] Other Great Articles For You, Dear Reader It’s Hydrangea Time! […]

    July 26, 2015 at 10:00 am
  3. Kim in Tennessee

    Thank you! I do know from pruning it in the past that the flowers come on old growth, so I may need to sacrifice a year to trim it back to a manageable size.

    June 20, 2012 at 8:06 am
  4. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    The main thing I would do as far as pruning is removing the old flowers as they fade. If you want to shorten any of the branches, do that at the same time. To held the bug flower clusters stand up, you might have to stake them. This is the price you pay for having such a Big Boy.

    June 18, 2012 at 10:37 am
  5. Kim in Tennessee

    Six years ago, I purchsed what I thought was a Big Boy Hydrangea, which was touted as a plant of the year. I have not been disappointed – it is a Big Boy, standing nearly 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and it is putting on a show with flowers rangng from white, pink, purple and blue. The clusters are getting so heavy, some of the canes cannot hold them up. I cannot find any specific info on this plant, when to prune, etc. any suggestions?

    June 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm
  6. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    The main reason for buying ‘Endless Summer’ is repeat blooms. However, it has seldom done that for me. A couple of my favorites are once-bloomers — ‘Ayesha’ and ‘Purple Tiers.’ And the most reliable blue is the old standby once-bloomer, ‘Nikko Blue.’

    April 17, 2012 at 11:53 am
  7. Linda

    Any coaching on choosing between a classic hydrangea and an endless blooming variety? What do you prefer?

    April 15, 2012 at 10:47 am
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Well, Mr. Peat, your post takes the prize as the longest one ever. Good information. One quibble, though. As I stated before, rebloomers, such as ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Forever & Ever’ (there will be lots of these coming along) can be pruned in fall or winter and still bloom, because they bloom on both old and new growth.

    April 30, 2011 at 7:58 am
  9. canadian sphagnum peat

    (Hydrangea macrophylla) is sometimes easy to recognize because it is the one whose flower color changes with the soil pH: blue in acid soil, pink in alkaline. There are a few varieties that simply stay white, making it much harder to categorize from the flowers. The leaves are coarsely serrated and glossy, dark green. H. macrophylla also include the Lacecap hydrangeas, whose flowers look like a circle of unopened buds surrounded by open petals. In reality, the unopened buds are the fertile flowers with pollen and the outer flashy petals are sterile and are just there to attract bees. This is true of most hydrangeas, so don’t become frustrated waiting for all the buds to open.
    Bigleaf type hydrangea set their flower buds at the ends of the upright or lateral branches, during late summer to early fall. Pruning Bigleaf hydrangea in the spring or even late fall, after the buds have been set, will remove the flower buds and any chance of getting flowers that season.
    Bigleaf hydrangea should be pruned as soon as the flowers have faded. You should begin to see new growth coming in from the base of the plant. To keep the plant vigorous, selectively prune out the dead and weaker stems, both old and new. Don’t prune out all the old wood, since this is what will keep flowering as the new growth matures.
    Bigleaf hydrangeas are the variety most susceptible to winter bud injury. If you live in an area with severe winters or your plant is exposed to winter winds, you might need to offer it some winter protection, to protect the flower buds. Tying the branches together and wrapping them with burlap isn’t pretty, but it could mean winter survival. Remove the burlap when the buds begin to swell.

    April 26, 2011 at 8:07 pm
  10. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    If you can’t find ‘Incrediball’ at local garden centers, you can mail-order it from Garden Crossings at

    June 27, 2010 at 11:38 am
  11. Amy

    Has anyone seen the “Incrediball”? I yet have to find on in any local stores.

    June 26, 2010 at 9:01 pm
  12. Rhonda

    Oh dear… Grumpy, I stand chastened and corrected. You are indeed a global and delightful galactic experience. Sector four of the Gamma quadrant is attempting to hail your Benevolence.
    I think they have a Crepe Myrtle question 🙂

    June 2, 2010 at 11:05 pm
  13. Dave

    Thanks Grumpy for the hydrangea find!

    June 2, 2010 at 9:43 am
  14. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    First of all, Rhonda, you are NOT the lone Northerner who religiously reads the Grumpy Gardener. I am a global experience with enlightened fans all over this country, continent, and yea, the world. Moreover, a golden plaque on the Voyager 1 spacecraft now outside of our solar system contains a link to the Grumpy Gardener and I expect to make first contact any day now.

    May 30, 2010 at 7:31 am
  15. Rhonda

    Lovely! As your lone northern reader I will say you guys get WAAAY more varieties to choose from. We grow Blue Boy, Blue Bird, Annabelle and several Panicle Hydrangeas at our place. I test new ones periodically and if they survive, I find many varieties still die back to the ground each year… ‘GO New Wood Bloomers!’
    As a result I usually get these sawed off little hydrangeas with what seem to be abnormally large mop heads. I suppose that is the terrible price I pay for not living in the south?

    May 28, 2010 at 8:08 am
  16. Melissa

    My favorite hydrangeas in my own garden are ‘Blue Danube, which came from Wilkerson Mills Garden many years ago. They are spectacular. Here in the DC area, although we are behind you in bloom time, it looks as though the hydrangeas are planning to eat many of the houses (including mine) – perhaps due to all that ‘nice’ snow pack from February. Go, ‘Dooley’! (Although I am a Georgia Tech fan at heart . . .)

    May 27, 2010 at 6:13 pm
  17. karen

    I was at the Lewis Ginter Botanical gardens in Richmond, VA a few weeks ago, and they had a few lovely lacecap hydrangeas with variegated green and white foliage. I hope to get one next spring (hubby says the new plant budget is busted for this year).

    May 27, 2010 at 3:42 pm
  18. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    I think the one you want is called ‘Mariesii Variegata.’ Don’t know if Wilkerson Mill has it, but Saratoga Gardens does. Here’s a link:

    May 27, 2010 at 3:12 pm
  19. UrsulaV

    I’m a big fan of our native oakleaf hydrangeas myself. The foliage is fantastic in fall, and they’re apparently cold-hardier than most mopheads.
    The downside is that deer think they are the tastiest thing ever, so I can only grow ’em in the fenced back yard, or I wind up with a lovely collection of stems.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm
  20. Jean

    I have 2 of the endless summer hydrangeas. One has buds the other does not so they have been moved to where they will get a little more sun. Had to move both of them as they have become attached to one another and would be so lonesome!

    May 27, 2010 at 1:26 pm
  21. Dave

    Great post! I prefer the lacecaps over the mopheads but their all pretty cool. I had a cutting from a variegated one a while back but it died. I’ll take a look at the source you mentioned and see if I can find another one.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:58 am
  22. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    This is what happens when your soil has a near neutral pH.
    Bridal wreath (Spirea prunifolia) is not related to hudrangeas. It’s actually in the rose family.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:54 am
  23. Faythe @GrammyMousetails

    this is one I have not had the pleasure to grow. I did inherit (on my property)a large bridal wreath bush and always wondered if it is the same family? I remember my grandmother had a long yard edging row of them & the neighbor would whack away at her side, she seemed to hate all nature, LOL! But it grew back no mater what.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:15 pm
  24. Jeff

    I have purchased from both Wilkerson Mill (got my Pia from them) and Meyers. My Wilkerson Mill hydrangeas were filled quickly and arrived in good shape. They are a good source if you are looking for a specific variety or a hard to find one.

    May 26, 2010 at 3:43 pm
  25. Ally

    My husband and I “inherited” a gigantic hydrangea at the house we purchased a few months back. It’s blooming but it’s blooming pink, blue and purple – I didn’t think that was even possible!

    May 26, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s