2020: Year of the Hydrangea


Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one perennial, one edible plant, one shrub and one bulb to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.

Let’s look at the shrub chosen for 2020, the hydrangea.

Year of the Hydrangea

Endless Summer The Original and Blushing Bride, two big leaf hydrangeas.

Hydrangeas are one of the most sought-after garden shrubs in temperate climates! Known for their nostalgia as well as their modern design appeal, hydrangeas are a perfect fit in the landscape, a container garden or for use as cut flowers.

The word Hydrangea comes from the Greek words for water, hydor and vessel, aggeion, because of the juglike shape of the seed capsule. You sometimes also hear certain species called Hortensia, a former botanical name honoring Hortense Lepaute, wife of Jean-André Lepaute (1720–1789), renowned French inventor and clockmaker.

There are some 70 species of hydrangeas, both shrubs and climbing plants, most native to Asia, but a few are also found in the Eastern United States. 

Faial, the Blue Island, is dominated by big leaf hydrangeas. Photo: ckg.hu

Some species, though, have been so widely planted elsewhere they appear native. Such is the case of the Azores, Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean about 1,500 km (930 miles) west of Lisbon, where H. macrophylla now grows so abundantly the island of Faial is now known as the Blue Island.

Hydrangeas belong to the botanical family Hydrangeaceae which contains a few other plants of horticultural interest, including mock oranges (Philadelphus spp.) and deutzias (Deutzia spp.).

Flower Forms

Hydrangea flowers are borne in heads at the end of the branches. They typically contain two types of flowers: a central cluster of small fertile non-showy flowers surrounded by a ring of large showy and more colorful yet sterile flowers designed to attract insect pollinators to the fertile ones right nearby. Cultivated varieties have generally been bred to have more of the larger showy sterile flowers and fewer fertile ones. Indeed, some hydrangeas form rounded balls of sterile flowers resembling pom-poms and are called mophead blooms or just mopheads. Those that have flat flowerheads with a circle of sterile flowers surrounding a cluster of fertile ones are often called lacecap hydrangeas or lacecaps.

Hydrangeas are often confused with viburnums, a genus of non-related shrubs with similar lacecap and mophead flowers.

Cut Flowers

Hydrangeas make great cut flowers, but dehydrate very rapidly. Plunge them immediately into tepid water when you harvest them. If the flowers become wilted, first insert the stem briefly into boiling water, then plunge the entire flowerhead into tepid water. The latter step will help restore hydration to the petals. 

Most species also make great dried flowers.

Selecting a Hydrangea for Your Garden

When choosing a hydrangea, keep the following in mind: your hardiness zone, available space (they can get quite big!), soil makeup, moisture levels and amount of sunlight received per day. 

Below are the five hydrangea species most often grown in home gardens.

Bigleaf Hydrangea or Hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Bigleaf hydrangea Endless Summer® The Original

The most common type in many areas, bigleaf hydrangea is perhaps the classic hydrangea. It gets the name bigleaf (the meaning of macrophylla) from its serrate, obovate, dark green leaves that often reach 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. It’s especially renowned for its mophead varieties whose blooms are also huge: up to 10 inches (25 cm) in some greenhouse varieties. And it’s certainly the most colorful of the hydrangeas, with flowers in shades of blue, pink, purple, red, white and more. 

These are the hydrangeas that famously change colors depending on the acidity of the soil. More on that under Pink or Blue Flowers? below. 

Bigleaf hydrangea ‘Miss Saori’ 

Bigleaf hydrangeas are not only garden plants, but are often sold as potted plants in the spring (Easter, Mother’s Day, etc.). Such potted plants lose enormous quantities of water through their large leaves and flowerheads and may need watering two or three times a week. Consider them gift plants: they probably will never bloom a second time indoors and are best either chucked after blooming or, in milder climates, planted outdoors.

The hardiness of bigleaf hydrangeas is limited to USDA hardiness zones 6 to 11. Although they’ll often survive in colder zones, dying to the ground in winter, they won’t readily bloom there without special protection, such as a circle of chicken wire filled with leaves or straw. This protection needs to be left on until temperatures warm up: even the slightest touch of frost readily kills the delicate flower buds. 

Endless Summer® Blushing Bride is a big leaf hydrangea whose white flowers gradually turn blush pink.

Typically, bigleaf hydrangeas planted in the garden bloom in early summer on new stems appearing from old wood (stems of the previous season): if the old stems die to the ground, there will be no bloom that year. Some cultivars, most notably those of the popular Endless Summer® and Forever and Ever® series, have the capacity to rebloom later in the season, from new wood, extending bloom over the entire summer, but this effect is often an elusive one, not seen under all conditions. In colder climates, due to winter damage, and in hot ones, due to heat stress, “reblooming hydrangeas” rarely rebloom.

The bigleaf hydrangea is best adapted to spots with morning sun and afternoon shade, plus good drainage. It is not drought tolerant and may need considerable watering if planted in sandy soil. A good mulch at least 3 inches (7.5 cm) deep will help keep the soil at the proper level of humidity. Avoid planting bigleaf hydrangea on hot, dry, exposed sites.

This hydrangea ranges widely in size, reaching 10 feet (3 m) or more in height and diameter in mild climates, but barely scratching 2 feet (60 cm) in colder ones where winter dieback is severe.

Mountain hydrangea Tiny Tuff Stuff™

Mountain hydrangea (H. serrata) is similar to bigleaf hydrangea and likewise comes both lacecap and mophead varieties in a similar color range. It’s a smaller shrub, 2 to 4 feet (60 to 120 cm) in height and spread, with smaller flowers and leaves, and is generally considered an easier plant to grow, being more tolerant of less than ideal conditions, although it is not really any hardier (USDA hardiness zones 6 to 9). Like it the bigleaf hydrangea, it may survive in zones 4 and 5, but considerable winter protection will be needed to get it to bloom.

Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

‘Abweto’ Incrediball® is an improved version of the popular smooth hydrangea ‘Annabelle’.

The classic white hydrangea, ‘Annabelle’, is widely planted in temperate climates all over the world. It is most definitely a mophead variety, with huge rounded flowerheads of white blooms gradually turning to lime green. The species itself has lacecap flowers, with an open circle of sterile white flowers surrounding smaller fertile ones in a flat cluster, and some cultivars, such as ‘Haas’ Halo’, maintain that form. 

Smooth hydrangeas now come in pink, like this Invinicbelle® Ruby.

For years, smooth hydrangea was only offered in white, but newer pink flowered cultivars, like Invinicbelle® Spirit II and Invinicbelle® Ruby, are becoming very popular, as are white mopheads with stronger stems than the floppy older ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Grandiflora’ varieties, like Incrediball® (‘Abweto’) and dwarf varieties like Invinicbelle® Wee White.

This is one of the few North American species, native from New York to Florida and from the East Coast to Oklahoma. It produces gray-brown stems with peeling bark and egg-shaped leaves with toothed margins. It flowers on new wood. 

It’s one of the hardiest hydrangeas, growing perfectly well in zones 3 to 9, and is perfect for full sun or dappled shade, even shade in hotter climates.

Panicle Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata)

Panicle hydrangea Pinky Winky®

Panicle hydrangeas, originally from eastern Asia, have gorgeous cone-shaped blooms that emerge white in midsummer and age to various shades of lime, pink and red as fall nights cool down, finally drying and turning tan for their winter-long display. These hydrangeas are some of the most cold-hardy and indeed, grow best in cooler climates (USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8). They adapt to most soils, but prefer rich, moist, well-drained ones, and grow best in sun or partial shade. They bloom on new wood. 

‘Bobo’ is one of the rare dwarf panicle hydrangeas.

They can be big plants, up to 15 feet (4.5 m) high and 12 feet (3.5 m) in diameter if allowed to grow on their own, but can easily be maintained at one third that size by regular pruning. There are also dwarf varieties, like ‘Bobo’, for smaller gardens. Panicle hydrangeas are sometimes pruned into a tree form.

The classic variety is H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’, often called just PG hydrangea, seen in older gardens everywhere, as it is a very long-lived plant, but its heavy flowers cause the stems to splay out and down, making the plant very broad indeed; not a good choice for a tiny garden. Most modern cultivars, like Pinky Winky®, have sturdy, upright stems and are preferable in gardens where space is at a premium.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

The striking leaves of the oakleaf hydrangea in their fall coloration. This is the cultivar ‘Jet Stream’.

Aptly named, this hydrangea is accented by leaves that resemble those of an oak tree (quercifolia means oak leaf). The incredible foliage also gives an amazing and long-lasting fall coloration: shades of purple and red. 

Oakleaf hydrangea ‘Jet Stream’ in bloom.

The flowers are equally attractive: large pyramidal panicles of mixed fertile and sterile blooms that turn pinkish over time. It is one of the earliest blooming species of hydrangea. Many cultivated varieties are showier than the species, with dense panicles of sterile flowers and sometimes even double ones, like Snowflake® (‘Brido’).

Although native to fairly mild climates in the Southeastern United States, from North Carolina west to Tennessee, and south to Florida and Louisiana, oakleaf hydrangea will grow in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9. It can be grown in even colder climates, but then suffers winter damage and may flower infrequently if at all.

This woodland species is well adapted to landscape use. In northern or cooler climates, oakleaf hydrangeas do well in full sun to light shade but in southern or hot climates, some afternoon sun protection is advised. It will grow best in rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soils. At full maturity, it can be from 6 to 8 feet in height and diameter, but can be kept smaller by pruning. Also, there are many dwarf cultivars of smaller stature.

Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris, syn. H. anomala petiolaris)

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris). Photo: http://www.jparkers.co.uk

This very different hydrangea is a climbing shrub from central Asia. It first forms a mounding shrub, then after several years in this juvenile form, starts to produce climbing branches that cling to rock faces, tree trunks and walls through dense aerial roots. They can reach up to 50 feet (15 m) high after any years. These climbing stems in turn produce, after several years, horizontal secondary branches that arch out, giving the plant more depth than most climbing plants. It is from those branches that clusters of scented white flowers appear in late spring-early summer. The flowers show the typical lacecap form: a frothy, flattened, very large cluster (up to 10 inches/25 cm in diameter) of fertile flowers surrounded by an open halo of large sterile ones.

The climbing hydrangea is covered with heart-shaped green leaves turning yellowish in the fall. There are also cultivars with variegated foliage. The exfoliating, reddish-brown bark offers considerable winter interest.

It’s yet another hydrangea that is easy to grow, adapting to just about any well-drained soil, although it prefers rich, fertile, moist conditions. It’s best known as a shade plant, adapted to part to full shade, but does fine in full sun if grown in consistently moist soil. It’s adapted to USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, but worth trying in zone 3.

If there is nothing for it to climb, climbing hydrangea will also grow as a ground cover.

Considerable patience is needed with the climbing hydrangea. It may take 3 or 4 years before starting to climb and yet another 3 or 4 years before producing the first blooms. From then on, though, it will normally flower abundantly every year.

There is considerable confusion between this plant and another climbing hydrangea, H. anomala, and indeed, H. petiolaris is still sold under the name H. anomala petiolaris. However, authorities recently accorded H. petiolaris full species status. H. anomala is a smaller species with smaller flowers and reduced hardiness (USDA zones 5 to 8 rather than 4 to 8). It is rarely seen in gardens.

The Japanese hydrangea vine (Hydrangea hydrangeoides) produces only a single white bract around the fertile flowers. Photo: Teresa Grau Ros, flickr.com

More popular is the Japanese hydrangea vine (Hydrangea hydrangeoides), still sold under its former botanical name, Schizmophragma hydrangeoides. It’s quite similar to H. petiolaris, with flowers that appear identical from a distance, but differ by the fact that the sterile flowers produce only a single paddle-shaped white bract rather than a bloom with 4 sepals. It is also less hardy (USDA zones 5 to 9).

Silver-leaved Japanese hydrangea vine (Hydrangea hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’). Photo: Worldplants.ca

Two cultivars are popular. ‘Moonlight’, with silvery-blue leaves with dark green veins and ‘Roseum’, with pink bracts. Rose Sensation™ is similar if not identical.

Pruning Your Hydrangea:

Pruning a panicle hydrangea in early spring. Photo: First Editions

How you prune your hydrangea depends on the species:

Bigleaf Hydrangea (H. macrophylla): This species blooms mainly on old wood. It requires very little trimming, as too much pruning removes potential blooms. Any pruning should be carried out immediately after blooming by cutting back flowering stems to a pair of healthy buds. Of course, you can prune also out weak or winter-damaged stems in early spring.

Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens): It blooms on new wood, so can be pruned back harshly in late winter or early spring and will bound back to flower the same summer. Pruning encourages new growth and tends to produce stronger stems and better blooms.

Panicle Hydrangea (H. paniculata): It also blooms on new wood and can be pruned in late winter or early spring. It does fine with no pruning at all, but is often cut back to control its size. For a shorter shrub, perhaps 4 feet (1.20 m) in height, cut to the ground in early spring; leave the stems 1–3 feet (30–90 cm) long for taller plants.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia)It blooms on old wood (previous season’s growth), so prune right after flowering.

Climbing hydrangea (H. petiolaris): It rarely requires pruning, but when it does, cut back immediately after it blooms, as it flowers on old wood. 

Pink or Blue Flowers?

Bring out better blues by keeping the soil acid. This is bigleaf hydrangea Endless Summer® Bloom Struck.

One of the most common questions about bigleaf and mountain hydrangeas is how to get blue flowers. You can change a pink hydrangea flower to blue by changing your soil’s pH … and vice versa. (You cannot change the color of white or green flowered varieties.)

To get blue flowers, there must be aluminum in the soil and indeed, it is present in most soils. In acid to neutral soils, the shrub will absorb it readily and blue flowers will result. But in alkaline soils, the roots can’t take up the aluminum and the flowers will be pink.

Do a soil test to find out what conditions you have. If your soil is acid to neutral, and your flowers are pink, but you’d like blue, apply some granular aluminum sulfate, sulfur or iron sulfate to acidify the soil. If your soil is alkaline, you can try to acidify it by working in lots of organic material and adding elemental sulfur gradually over several years.

Ask a local expert for advice on what works best in your area. Always follow package directions carefully. It may take several months or a season for these soil modifications to work.

Uses in the Garden

There are dozens of ways of using hydrangeas in the landscape. This is panicle hydrangea White Diamonds.

Hydrangeas can be used in so many ways in your garden, from a focal point to establishing a border and filling the foundation around your house. And they don’t just have to be planted in the landscape anymore either. Many hydrangeas, especially the newer varieties, are more compact and do incredibly well in a decorative pot. And don’t forget to cut some blooms for an indoor flower arrangement. 

You’ll definitely enjoy the Year of the Hydrangea!

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Flowering Plants for Mother’s Day


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Most nurseries put up Mother’s Day displays filled with interesting gift plants. Source: www.timperleygardencentre.com

Tradition has that you give Mom a bouquet of flowers for her day and that’s fine. Even so, I have another suggestion. Why not give her a living plant, one with beautiful blooms? It will be just as attractive as a bouquet of cut flowers, but will last much longer and, in most cases, she can keep it going for several months or even plant the container outdoors permanently.

When Is Mother’s Day Exactly?

The date Mother’s Day is held varies from country to country, but it usually takes place in the spring. In most countries, including Canada, the United States, and most of Europe, it’s the second Sunday of May, but in Spain, it’s the first Sunday in May and in France, the last Sunday of May. In the United Kingdom, Mothering Day is the 4th Sunday of Lent, so it moves around quite a bit. Australia and New Zealand keep the “second Sunday of May” tradition, which means Mother’s Day takes place in fall.

Here are some flowering gift plants that Mom is sure to appreciate:


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You can’t go wrong when you offer a container of annuals as a Mother’s Day gift. Source: Proven Winners

Be it hanging baskets, flower boxes or planters, you’ll find a huge selection of pots dripping with gorgeous annual flowers—calibrachoas, scaevolas, hybrid alyssums, pelargoniums, etc.—in just about any garden center, the perfect gift for a mother who has a balcony or terrace she’d like to brighten up with bloom. Ask the clerk to help you choose one adapted to Mom’s light situation, always the limiting factor: full sun, partial shade or shade. In areas where springs are still cold at Mother’s Day, she might need to keep the containers indoors for a while, until night temperatures stay reliably above 12 ° C.

Indoor Azalea (Rhododendron simsii)

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Indoor Azalea. Source: www.bakker.com

The indoor azalea is covered with a mass of usually double flowers in red, pink, white or two tones. Mom can grow it indoors while it blooms, then put it outdoors for the summer, in a fairly shady spot. Tell her not to bring it back indoors too early in the fall, as azaleas like cool fall temperatures as long as it doesn’t drop below freezing.

Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)

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Modern hibiscus, like those in the Hollywood series, are more compact and heavier blooming that older cultivars. Source: www.hollywoodhibiscus.com

This will be a houseplant for most Moms, but a plant-in-the-ground outdoor shrub if she lives in the tropics. It has huge flowers shaped like parabolic antennas and it will bloom sporadically all spring and summer, even into fall and sometimes winter. Full sun is a big help in getting good bloom. Ma can move it outdoors for the summer if she wants.

Florist’s Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

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Florist’s hydrangea: keep it well watered! Source: http://www.teleflora.com

With its huge globes of blue or pink flowers (sometimes other colors), this plant never fails to please. Tell Mom to water it abundantly and often: this plant loses a lot of moisture to the air because of its huge leaves and thus dries out very quickly. This is not a houseplant: after it blooms, Mom will have to acclimatize it to outdoors conditions and plant it in the garden where it will grow in sun or partial shade. With a little luck, it will then bloom again annually. It’s not the hardiest of hydrangeas, though (it’s best suited to zones 6 to 9), and will need winter protection in colder regions.

Lily (Lilium spp.)

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Lilies make stunning temporary houseplants. Source: W.H. Zandbergen, ibulb.org

Pink, red, yellow, orange or white, with flowers shaped like trumpets, stars or turbans, scented or not, potted lilies are always gorgeous. To prolong their effect, buy a pot with many flower buds, but only one or two open flowers, a guarantee of weeks of flowers to come. Lilies are hardy bulbs (most to zone 3 or 4) and can therefore be planted out in a sunny spot in the garden after they bloom. They’ll live for decades in the average garden!

Primrose (Primula spp.)

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Polyanthus primrose. Source: www.ebbing-lohaus.de

There are many kinds of primroses, many of which are sold as gift plants. Some, such as the German primrose (P. obconica) and the fairy primrose (P. malacoides), are usually considered annuals and die after flowering. Just toss them in the compost. Most of the others, though, and especially the very popular common primrose (P. vulgaris) and its hybrid, the polyanthus primrose (P.x polyantha), are hardy. Indeed, they are classic perennials for the flower bed, most being hardy to zone 3. Plant them out in partial shade in moderately moist soil and they’ll come back year after year.

Rose (Rosa spp.)

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Miniature rose. Source: www.jacksonandperkins.com

It’s mostly miniature roses (very hardy) and polyantha roses (moderately hardy) that are sold for Mother’s Day. Often these plants will bloom several times during the summer if given proper care. Plant them in the ground, in full sun, and expect to see them back in bloom for years to come.

Spring Bulbs (Tulipa, Narcissus, Crocus, Hyacinthus, etc.)

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Daffodils and hyacinths make a great combo. Source: Wouter Koppen, ibulb

These are hardy bulbs, so after they bloom, Mom can plant them outdoors in her garden. Look for a spot that is sunny in the spring (these bulbs will be dormant and underground during the summer, so aren’t concerned in the least about summer shade).

Of course, there are many other flowering gift plants that Mom would enjoy on Mother’s Days: cinerarias, flowering shrubs, bromeliads, African violets, orchids, etc. Choose one for Mom considering not only her taste in flowers, but her growing conditions and her ability to keep them going … and then buy one for yourself too. You deserve it!20180509A www.timperleygardencentre.com.jpg

Christmas Plants Around the World


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Christmas plants differ according to region. Source; laidbackgardener.blog

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell them or a home that isn’t decorated with one. But there are other Christmas plants, including Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), Christmas kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), frosted fern (Selaginella martensii ‘Frosty’), Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and, more recently, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Christmas trees are popular all over North America, too. Fir trees (Abies spp.) are the biggest sellers, but Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruces (Picea spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) are widely used.

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Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Source: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces in Eastern North America, as it has evergreen fronds that last all winter and are thus available at Christmastime, but its star has waned considerably. It’s just too easy to find longer-lasting artificial or preserved foliage for such use these days. The Christmas fern still makes a great garden plant for shady spots and is hardy to zone 3.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata Berry Poppins®). Source: Proven Winners

The branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have fared better over time and are still widely used. This deciduous holly, native to eastern North America, is leafless at Christmas, but its branches are covered with bright red berries that create great swaths of color in Christmas arrangements. You can grow them yourself (the shrub is hardy to zone 3 and you will need to include at least one male plant in your planting to pollinate the berry-bearing females), but you can also buy branches in florist shops … including fake ones, unfortunately.

That covers most of the plants associated with Christmas in North America, but Christmas plants differ around the world. Let’s take a look at what’s going on elsewhere.


In general, the plants featured in the first paragraph—poinsettias, Christmas cactus, Christmas kalanchoe, etc.—are also popular in Europe, although the poinsettia, even though it is not rare per se, is not as popular as on this side of the Atlantic. But there are other plants associated with Christmas (and New Year’s Day) that are more specific to Europe.

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Holly (Ilex aquifolium): more popular in Europe than in North America. Source: AnemoneProjectors, Wikiimedia Commons

For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a European shrub or tree with spiny-edged, shiny, leathery, evergreen leaves and red berries and is grown in many Old World gardens. True enough, holly is available on a limited basis in North America too (although are mostly seem either on Christmas cards or as sprigs of plastic leaves), but nothing to the extent to which it is used in Europe, where, in some countries, sprigs of holly are found on nearly every window ledge and doorway. This tradition has come to be seen as a sign of welcome, but is in fact based a centuries-old belief that putting holly on all possible entranceways would prevent evil spirits from invading the home.

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Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Source: mistletoematters.wordpress.com

Kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is a very old European tradition and can be traced back to the time of the Druids, who laid down arms and exchanged greetings under the mistletoe, considered to be a very sacred plant. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on tree branches, counting on sap it absorbs from its host for its survival. European mistletoe (Viscum album)—with its translucent round white berries—is the original variety to kiss under.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought over to the New World and thrived for awhile, but now appears to be dying out. Certainly mistletoe is now only available very locally in North America: I haven’t seen a sprig of it in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

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English ivy (Hedera helix) used in a wreath. Source: bcinvasives.ca

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a traditional Christmas plant in Europe, widely used in holiday garlands and wreaths. Think of the carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example. And why not, since this evergreen climber grows abundantly everywhere on that continent and so is readily available! The tradition of using ivy as a Christmas decoration never caught on in North America, probably because ivy is neither native nor widely grown, though it has escaped from culture to become abundant in a few areas. Harvesting ivy for Christmas decorations is something that could be encouraged as a control measure in areas (mostly on the US West Coast) where ivy is proving to be a pernicious weed.

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The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a stunning early bloomer… but only blooms at Christmas in mild climates. Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not a rose (Rosa spp.) at all, of course, but a perennial. It’s a traditional Christmas plant in southeastern Europe, notably in areas where Orthodox Church is the common religion. Orthodox Christmas takes place about two weeks later than in Western rites, around January 7. And this very early perennial is usually in bloom by then. Although mainly used in flower beds or naturalized in woodlands, it’s also sold as a gift plant at that season.

Elsewhere in Europe and pretty much everywhere in North America, this plant flowers too late to be a Christmas plant. Where I live, it isn’t even in bloom at Easter … it’s more like a Mother’s Day plant!

In Europe, the tradition of Christmas trees is well established and often spruce or pine, or even a juniper or other conifer, are used, depending on what is available locally.

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The Yule log tradition has trouble surviving in modern homes, as so many no longer have a functioning fireplace. Source: maeclair.net

The tradition of the Yule log has largely died out in Britain and Central Europe as it has in North America, but in many parts of Europe, notably in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe, it remains deeply entrenched. A Yule log is a very large hardwood log, the idea being to light it on Christmas Eve and have it burn through the night and Christmas Day. In the Balkans, the Yule log is called a badnjak (or budnik, according to the local language) and it is usually an oak, a symbol of longevity. Those who do not have a fireplace to burn a log in often decorate their apartment with twigs of oak.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland, the Yule log (bûche de Noël) has morphed into a log-shaped cake, traditionally served at Christmas … you don’t need a fireplace for that!

Mediterranean and Middle East

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A wreath decorated with pomegranates (Punica granatum). Source: www.clubbotanic.com

The main Christmas plant in this region is the pomegranate (Punica granatum): a perfect choice, as it matures at just the right time of year. Doors, fireplaces, tables, etc. are decorated with pomegranate fruits, both fresh and artificial.

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Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Source: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Two other plants often used in Christmas decorations are the shrubs butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), both bearing evergreen foliage and red berries.

In Israel, olive branches (Olea europaea) are offered at Christmas to friends as a symbol of peace.


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Flower market full of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in Mexico just before Christmas. Source: casita-colibri.blog

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico and is popular in there, where it’s known as flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower). Butcher’s broom and firethorn, brought over from Spain, are also popular, as well as are several local plants that bloom at Christmas.

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Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: http://www.goya.com

Manzanita, also called tejocote or manzanilla (Crataegus mexicana), a large-berried hawthorn, is another plant traditionally used as a Christmas decoration in many parts of Mexico and Central America. The orange fruits may be threaded onto a garland and are also used to make Christmas punch.

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Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia, Wikimedia Commons

One of Mexico’s most curious Christmas traditions, however, is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Los Rábanos), celebrated in the region of Oaxaca on December 23rd. In it, radishes are carved and arranged into some very impressive displays.

South America

Since most of this continent lies south of the equator, the seasons are inverted and Christmas takes place in summer, not winter. That means traditional Christmas plants of the Northern Hemisphere bloom six months too late for Christmas. As a result, the poinsettia is called “Easter flower” (flor de pascua) in many South American countries, because it blooms at Easter, while our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is called “flor de maio” (May flower) in its country of origin, Brazil. Yet there is a Christmas cactus in these countries. The plant we call Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) in the North is the “cactus de Navidad” and blooms at Christmas in much of South America.

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Colored berries of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Source: Javier Alejandro, flickr.

South Americans tend to use native plants as cut flowers or holiday plants at the Christmas season. Branches of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius) and its cousin, Peruvian peppertree (S. mollis), known in the north for the pink peppercorns they produce, are often used to decorate churches and houses during the holiday season, as they are loaded with small red berries at that time of year.

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Venezuelan Christmas orchid (Cattleya percivaliana). Source: QuazDelaCruz, Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela has its own Christmas orchid that blooms for the holidays: Cattleya perciviliana. Elsewhere in South America, the usual “orquídea de navidad” is Angraecum sesquipedale, actually native to Madagascar, but widely grown for its large white star-shaped flowers. It’s also called estrella of Belén (star of Bethlehem), but then, so are many other white, star-shaped flowers, including bulbs of the genus Ornithogalum.

In Paraguay, house and Christmas displays are often decorated with “flores de coco,” the long, fragrant inflorescences of a local palm tree, the coyol (Acrocomia aculeata). This pre-Christian tradition comes from the indigenous Guarani people.


In general, the concept of Christmas is relatively new to this continent and the celebration is mostly a commercial one of American inspiration, so there are often no traditional plants associated with the holiday, at least not long-standing ones. Most are the same Christmas plants seen in North America (poinsettias, Christmas cacti, etc.). Christmas trees, almost nonexistent only 30 years ago, for example, are now seen everywhere, although more often in shopping centers than in private homes. Usually artificial trees are used.

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Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: http://www.mailordertrees.co.uk

The Christian population in Japan is more firmly established than most in Asia and has solidly adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, usually a real fir or spruce tree. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which is not a bamboo at all, but a shrub, is the second-best-known Christmas plant, with its scarlet fruits and red winter leaves. Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium), popular in all seasons in Japan, are widely used at Christmas too.

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Apples stamped with seasonal messages are common Christmas Eve gifts in China. Source: gbtimes.com

In China, an apple wrapped in colored paper or stamped with an appropriate seasonal message is often offered as a gift on Christmas Eve because the word “Christmas Eve,” translated as “night of peace” (Ping’an Ye) in Mandarin, sounds like the word apple (píngguǒ).

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Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii). Source: palmpedia.ne

In the tropical regions of Asia, the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), better known by its old name, Veitchia merrillii, is widely grown. With its stocky trunk and relatively short fronds, it looks like a dwarf royal palm … and bears bright red fruit at Christmas. Originally from the Philippines and Malaysia, this palm is now grown throughout the tropics.

Finally, in India, the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree, but otherwise, Christmas is little celebrated in India.


The traditions of using Christmas plants are more firmly established in South Africa than in the center and north of the continent, brought to this region by European settlers (notably the Dutch and English).

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To Northeners, hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla) just don’t say Christmas, but it warms the cockles of the heart of South Africans. Source: pxhere

Again, though, with the seasons being inverted, the South African Christmas plants are very different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Notably, the hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla), well-known in the North for its summer bloom, is called “Christmas flower” and is by far the most popular Christmas plant!

On the other hand, poinsettias are catching on as well. They have to be specially prepared in order to bloom at Christmas rather than in May, which is when they’d bloom if left on their own. Local nurserymen manage to do this by covering their production greenhouses with black cloth after 4 pm to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

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Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: http://www.alanjolliffe.com

Various native plants also serve as Christmas plants, such as Christmas bush (Pavetta spp.), Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) and Christmas berry (Chironia baccifera). Several plants imported from Australia, which has a similar climate, are also appreciated for their winter bloom. You’ll read more about those below. Africans also celebrate Christmas with many plants that are for us just typical summer flowers, like daisies, roses and zinnias.

Christmas trees are very popular in South Africa, but they use as subjects conifers adapted to local conditions, such as cypress (Cupressus spp., including C. macrocarpa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and various pines (Pinus spp., including P. radiata).


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The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is Australia’s favorite Christmas tree, AlfredSin, flickr

In Australia, the traditional Christmas tree is the native Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Grown in mostly as a houseplant in the northern hemisphere, where it rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, in Australia, it can eventually reach up to 250 feet (65 m) in height, about 20 floors! Other mild-climate conifers from various parts of the world are also used as Christmas trees, including various pines.

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The Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda). Source:  JarrahTree, Wikimedia Commons

And Australians have their own Ozzie Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda … but it’s not a conifer, but rather a broad-leaved tree. Moreover, it’s a parasitic tree (or rather hemiparasitic tree, since it does carry out its own photosynthesis) that steals most of its water and minerals from nearby plants! The Australian Christmas tree produces frothy spikes of orange-yellow flowers just in time for the holidays.

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One of many Christmas bushes in Australia: Ceratopetalum gummiferum. Source: gdaymateowyagoin, flickr

To add to this, each Australian state seems to have its own “Christmas bush,” always a shrub that produces masses of either flowers or colorful fruits at the right season, including Correa spp., Chromolaena odorata, Ceratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera laisanthos. Also, there are many bulbs that bloom at Christmas, including various species of Blandfordia, called “Christmas bells.” And Australia also has its own Christmas orchid: Calanthe triplicata, native to the north of the country

New Zealand

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New Zealand Christmas tree (Meterosideros excelsa). Source: Ed323, Wikimedia Commons

Mention Christmas tree to any New Zealander and they’ll immediately think of Meterosideros excelsa, a rounded broadleaf tree with feathery red flowers at Christmas. It’s called the New Zealand Christmas tree or pōhutukawa. And an introduced bulb from South America (Alstroemeria psittacina), with green-tipped red tubular flowers, has “gone native” and is well-known by locals as New Zealand Christmas bells.

So, wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

If you know of other Christmas plants, do not hesitate to let me know about them at laidbackgardener@gmail.com.20171224A HC.jpg

Bigleaf Hydrangeas in a Cold Climate

In Britanny, you can see endless bigleaf hydrangea hedges.

I get to see spectacular bigleaf hydrangeas when I travel to milder climates. I’ve seen hedges of them 8 feet (2.5 m) high and just as wide in Brittany, France, covered with hundreds of purplish blue globular flower heads. And outstanding specimens in Vancouver, Virginia and the Azores. It’s enough to make any gardener want to try them!

But that’s not so easy in colder climates. You see, although nurseries stick labels with encouraging hardiness zones like zone 5 or even zone 4 in the pots of bigleaf hydrangea, in fact, these are essentially zone 6 plants, and zone 7 is even better. Like many shrubs, you can grow them beyond their normal hardiness zone, but with decreasing results as the climate gets colder. Where I live, in USDA zone 3b (AgCan zone 4b), for example, they die back to ground or nearly so in most winters. And they only bloom irregularly, on much shorter plants.

Yet, you can get them to bloom quite well, even into zone 3a. The  secret is to convince them they are growing in zone 7!

Portrait of a Capricious Plant

In Japan, bigleaf hydrangea fills forests with its blooms.

The bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) has several common names: hortensia, florists hydrangea, French hydrangea, blue hydrangea, etc. It’s native to Asia, especially Japan,where it grows in deep forests at the foot of tall trees, well protected from the wind.

In North America, it’s often sold as gift plant for Mother’s Day or Easter, but, although it can survive for  short time indoors, it really needs cool winters to bloom again. Therefore the bigleaf hydrangea doesn’t really make a good houseplant. Alternatively, it is also widely used as an outdoor shrub in milder climates.

Lacecap hydrangea.

This hydrangea offers two flower types. The original form is the lacecap hydrangea, usually shortened to simply lacecap, which produces, at the end of each stem, a large flat umbel of small fertile florets surrounded by a ring of much larger sterile florets with 4 very broad petals. The showy sterile florets attract pollinating insects to less attractive fertile flowers in the center. There are many lacecap varieties, but few are commercially available, ‘Twist-n-Shout’ being one exception.

The popular ‘Endless Summer’ is a mophead type, with rounded balls of sterile flowers.

Varieties with globular inflorescences, called mophead hydrangeas or simply mopheads, which are by far the most popular in culture. They originated as mutations from the lacecap types. They are almost entirely composed of sterile, large-petaled flowers and are therefore very showy, although not too attractive to insects, as they offer no pollen or nectar. There are hundreds of mophead varieties, including the popular garden variety, ‘Endless Summer’.

To really flourish, the bigleaf hydrangea needs a fairly cool summer and a moderately cold winter, but without a prolonged period of freezing. It will happily grow in full sun in areas with cool or foggy summers, but elsewhere does best in partial shade and even in fairly deep shade, because the soil and air are cooler and more humid there. Because of its large leaves, this hydrangea loses a lot of water to evaporation and will require frequent watering in drier spots. That’s why you won’t find it widely grown in hot, dry climates such as southern California, nor does it thrive in windy spots.

The bigleaf hydrangea likes soil rich in humus that remains slightly moist at all times. So add plenty of compost to the soil at planting time. Always use a mulch as well: it will keep the soil cooler and moister. Mulches that decompose into rich compost, like chopped leaves and ramial chipped wood, are ideal. Fertilize using an slow-release all-purpose organic fertilizer, especially in naturally poor or sandy soils. Avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers (ones where the first of the three numbers is highest): they tend to stimulate foliage growth at the expense of flowers.

The Bluer the Better

Purplish to pink to blue flowers on the same plant usually mean the soil is neither acid nor alkaline.

One unusual characteristic of the bigleaf hydrangea is that its flower color changes according to the soil type: its flowers will be blue in acid soil (a pH of less than 5.5) and pink in alkaline soil (a pH of more than 6.5). In between, at a pH of 5.6 to 6.4, many varieties will show various shades of pink to purple to blue, even on the same plant. The blue coloration is due to the presence of aluminum (a widely available element found it most soils). It is more readily available to plants in acid soils which therefore tend to produce blue flowers and becomes fixed and unavailable in alkaline soils, leading to pink flowers.

In most of eastern and northern North America, soils are naturally acidic enough that flowers tend towards the blue side. If they’re not blue enough for your taste, try lowering the soil pH with sulfur treatments. Even just applying peat moss (an acidic soil amendment) at planting and following that with a peat moss mulch will often give just as good results.

Garden centers often recommend adding aluminum sulphate to the soil, but this product can be toxic to plants if not used very carefully and I don’t recommend it. At any rate, most soils contain an abundance of aluminum: why would you want to add more?

Fewer people seem to want their hydrangeas to be pinker, but if so, apply an alkalinizing agent, such as lime, to the soil. Red and purple varieties too tend to be more intensely colored in alkaline soils. Unless your soil is naturally lacking in aluminum, you’ll find it is harder to get a clear pink in bigleaf hydrangeas than a true blue.

Note too that there are biglear hydrangeas with white flowers. They tend to relatively unaffected by the acidity/alkalinity of the soil, simply turning somewhat pinkish or bluish as they age.

My suggestion: first ensure the survival of your hydrangea by offering the best conditions you can. Only later, when you have mastered its culture, should you consider whether you want to meddle with its color.


Considerable confusion arises from the fact that various species in the genus Hydrangea have very different pruning needs.

Most hydrangeas bloom on new wood: the new stems that appear in the spring. You can prune these hydrangeas severely in the fall or spring without reducing their bloom. This group includes the popular smooth hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’), with its big balls of white flowers in mid-summer, as well as the nearly as popular panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata), a later blooming plant with more elongated inflorescences that change from white to pink as they age.

The bigleaf hydrangea is exactly the opposite: it blooms on old wood, that is, the stems produced previous year. So it’s branches already bear the buds of the flowers of the following summer as they go into winter. If you prune this plant heavily in either fall or spring, eliminating all the branches, it will not flower because you’ll have removed the flower buds for the coming summer.

Be careful what you read on the Internet about pruning this hydrangea and especially where the information comes from! Advice given for mild climates will often suggest pruning quite severely after flowering to control the plant’s growth. However, that kind of pruning is not applicable to hydrangeas grown in cold regions! You’ll see: the cold will keep their growth in check!

This hydrangea has died back nearly to the ground: simply prune back the dead wood.

In cold climates (certainly zones 3, 4, and 5 and quite possibly even 6), it is better to never prune living stems, especially not in the autumn! You can remove dead flower clusters, but nothing more. Instead, wait until late spring before pruning.

In cold climates, there will inevitably be winter damage and in fact, most of the branches will freeze at least in part. If they freeze to the ground, the plant will probably grow back, but will not bloom that year. On the other hand, if even a short section of the branch is still alive in the spring, it will contain buds that will bloom. So pruning is really very simple in cold climates: just remove the dead wood (easy to recognize because it bears no green buds!). And do it in the late spring, cutting back to about 1/2 inch (1 cm) above the living bud.

Why Don’t Reblooming Varieties Rebloom?

Some cultivars, like ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘All Summer Beauty’, are said to flower on old wood in early summer, but also on new wood, later in the summer, providing a second series of flowers and therefore continuous flowering throughout the season. They said to be “remontant”, a horticultural term that essentially means “they bloom again”. Plus, sellers state, “even if the buds are damaged in winter weather, the plant can still flower on wood it produces that season”.

Great in theory, but not so real in practice. In colder climates, this simply doesn’t work… not after a cold winter, at any rate. I have never seen a clear explanation for this (if anyone knows the cause, I’m all ears!), But I have my own theory. I suspect this second flowering occurs not from truly new shoots that emerge from the soil in the spring, but from secondary sprouts arising from those that survived the winter. So even as its branches are flowering, new buds begin to form at their base, ready to take over. However, to get this second flowering, the plant would need to have branches have survived the cold.

The end result is that, in zones 3, 4 and 5 at least, remontant hydrangeas like ‘Endless Summer’ could better be called “Flowerless Summer” many years. If you can’t create the conditions necessary for the first blooming to occur, the plant is unlikely to flower at all.

Winter Protection: the Secret to Successful Bloom

Curiously, the bigleaf hydrangea often blooms better in cold, snowy climates than somewhat warmer ones. Why? Because snow acts as a very good insulator. Where snow falls early, in abundance and stays late, it protects overwintering branches, the ones bearing the flower buds. In climates where snow is only sporadic, melts away repeatedly in winter, or disappears too early in spring, branches will tend to freeze and therefore, bye-bye bloom.

In the colder regions, snowy or not, it is always wise to properly protect bigleaf hydrangeas. Not with a rose cone or geotextiles, as the temperature inside those shelters starts rising too quickly in the spring, pushing the hydrangea to produce new shoots too early… and these are inevitably killed by a late frost. Instead, you need winter protection that slows spring growth or, looking at it from a different point of view, that prolongs winter. And for that, nothing beats a good layer of dead leaves.

Dead leaves: the Best Winter Protection!

Dead leaves are the very best winter protection!

In the fall, after the first frost, cover your hydrangea with 1 foot or even 2 feet (30 to 60 cm) of fall leaves (you can surround the plant with a “cage” of chicken wire to better hold them in place). Leaves tend to remain cold and moist for a long time, even when the spring sun behinds to warm things up elsewhere, and that’s what you want. Wait until very late spring, when there is no longer any risk of frost, before removing the leaves, usually about the end of tulip season. The mulch will keep the soil cold longer, delaying the start of vegetation… and protecting your future flowers.

When you finally do remove the leaf mulch protection, be ready to cover your hydrangea in case of a late freeze. A large pot or bucket placed upside down over the plants should be sufficient to keep the frost off.

Be careful when removing dead leaves: the plant will already starting to grow under leaves, with pale swelling buds or new shoots and you don’t want to damage them. This is the time to prune, removing dead wood only.

With this treatment, you have a good chance of seeing your bigleaf hydrangea flower almost every year, even into zone 3!

Cold-hardy Cultivars

Even so, some cultivars are better adapted to cold climates than others. Varieties sold as Mother’s Day plants were chosen to be easy to force and therefore bloom early, exactly what you don’t want in a cold climate. They rarely make good choices for outdoor planting further north than zone 7.

‘Penny Mac’ is said to be the hardiest bigleaf hydrangea.

Among the cultivars that are more cold-resistant, slower to sprout in spring or both, and are therefore the best choices for northern gardeners, there are: ‘All Summer Beauty’, ‘Blushing Bride’, ‘Rose Bouquet’, ‘Early Sensation’, ‘Endless Summer’, ‘Let’s Dance Moonlight’,’ Let’s Dance Starlight’, ‘Let’s Dance Big Easy’, ‘Nikko Blue’, ‘Pink Beauty’ and ‘Twist-n-Shout’, plus such series as ‘Forever and Ever’ and ‘Cityline’. ‘Penny Mac’ has the reputation of being the hardiest and the most floriferous of all the big leaf hydrangeas. It is readily remontant when given decent conditions.

Developing a Zen Attitude

There you go! I have now shared all the secrets for successfully blooming a bigleaf hydrangea in a cold climate. But I find the above too much work for a laidback gardener.

Personally, I give my big leaf hydrangeas no special care other than planting them in a suitable location: in a protected spot in part shade with moist, rich but well-drained soil where autumn leaves naturally accumulate. I’ll admit my results are variable: there are good years with lots of bloom and bad years with little to none. I just figure I appreciate the flowers all that much more when they’re a pleasant surprise than a forgone conclusion!