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August 7, 2007 > Hydrangeas


By Pat Kite

Whenever it wilts, which is often, I remember to water my small hydrangea bush. Sometimes I get annoyed at how much liquid sustenance it needs. But since it is one of my more "exotic" plants, and I haven't managed to "demise it" in four years, my complaints are muted by pretty white flower clusters. People ask me how to get pink or blue flower clusters. Back in old English Victorian days, Hydrangeas were nicknamed "changeables." In early spring, making the soil acidic with aluminum sulfate will give you blue clusters. Upping the alkalinity with super phosphate gives you pink flowers. Check out your garden center for these soil additives. This process must be started before plant begins to bloom.

One of our most popular garden hydrangeas originated as a wild plant in China. Somebody carried one home. With care, it got prettier. Then both Chinese and Japanese gardeners took to fussing with it. In time, tiny blossoms became spectacular clusters. In about 1790, a cargo ship carrying tea also carried shrubs with pink flowers. The ship docked in several Southern states and with it, "Hydrangea Hortensias" found their first American home.

Why Hortensia? Discussion continues. There was a Mademoiselle Hortense, daughter of a Nassau prince and botanist, who, according to one author, joined a plant-hunting voyage to escape his creditors. There was also a female ship's assistant, disguised as a boy, on the voyage. At excursion's ending, she later changed her name to Hortense. This just goes to show that plants can have mystery and adventure too.

Nowadays, among the 100+ varieties offered, you can find miniature 18-inch Hydrangeas, shrubs that can be trained as a 25-foot tree, and climbing hydrangeas which escalate by self-clinging rootlets to over 60 feet high and can cover a garage. And, from whence comes the word "Hydrangea?" To long ago persons, the seed vessels looked like tiny water jars. The ancient Greek word for water was "hydro." The Greek word for vessel was "angeion," i.e. Hydrangea.

Hydrangeas are available at most garden centers, and are also given as potted gifts. To keep their color, you must use additives. There is an 1818 British story about an extremely poor woman who had a thriving blue hydrangea in her cottage garden. Hydrangeas, at the time, were still rare. The woman was offered a good sum of money for her large shrub. She refused. The plant had been "reared by a child that she had lost." Finally she was persuaded to part with a few cuttings. When these were transferred to a different soil environment, all the flowers were pink.

Place Hydrangeas in partial shade. They prefer good soil. Water you must, especially when the weather is hot. For dry arrangements: Put flower clusters with stems in a vase containing about 3-inches of water. Arrange cuttings so they do not touch. This lets air circulate. As the water evaporates the flowers will slowly dry.

Hydrangea is symbolic of remembrance, boastfulness, heartiness and cold beauty. Why? Because it is a beautiful flower without scent.

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