The hydrangea challenge

Hydrangeas have long held the eyes of gardeners and landscapers for their bigger-than-life ornamental appeal. Hydrangeas have what most horticulturists call multi-season appeal. If you are a gardener who has experienced fading daffodil and tulip foliage, or the yellowing foliage of daylilies at the end of the season, then you know what I am talking about.

This growing season, I challenge homeowners to try their hand at growing one of these three favorite hydrangea species and their cultivars that populate central Illinois gardens.

Hydrangea paniculata

Also known as panicled hydrangea, this industry favorite comes in many varieties including Limelight, Pinky Winky, Quick Fire and Tardiva. These winter-hardy hydrangeas are tolerant of urban conditions like pollution. The shrubs grow 6- to 10-feet high, depending on cultivar, and bloom early to mid-summer.

They bloom on new wood and should be pruned in late winter or early spring. Gardeners can rejuvenate by cutting them to the ground every few years. In other years, larger flower panicles can be produced by thinning the plant to five or 10 primary canes.

Limelight is known for its copious number of flowers and foliage that turns shades of red during the fall. Pinky Winky blooms begin white and turn pink with age, creating a two-tone effect. Its flower display is impressive because its strong stems keep the flowers upright. Quick Fire is a compact plant which produces smaller, less full but prolific white flowers that turn reddish purple. It tends to bloom a month earlier than other panicled hydrangea.

Hydrangea arborescens

The Annabelle is the most commonly known plant in this group of smooth hydrangea. It usually has large heart-shaped leaves and massive summer flowers. The colors transition from green to white to brown. In nature, this plant is loose and wild-looking, but in a cultivated setting where additional water and fertilizers are provided, it makes a nice clump-forming shrub.

It flowers in June and again in August if spent flowers are removed. These plants respond well to rejuvenation. In other years, remove the outer canes in late winter.

Annabelle grows 3- to 5-feet tall with large, round, white flowers that are 6 inches across. It puts on a show for six to eight weeks. Annabelle will not tolerate full sun unless supplemental watering is provided.

Hydrangea quercifolia

Known as oak leaf hydrangea, this is one of my all-time favorite shrubs. It grows about 6 feet tall and wide in a “roundy moundy” shape. The shrub has large cone-shaped blooms that add color starting in May. The blooms last to the end of summer and transform from white, to purplish pink, to brown.

It is adaptable and can be grown in full sun and boasts large dark green leaves that turn rusty red in the fall, reminiscent of oak leaves. This plant blooms on old wood, and pruning must be done after flowering in late summer. As with most hydrangeas, supplemental watering during drought will keep it happy.

Are you up for the challenge?