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Hydrangeas: What Makes These Colorful Flowers so Popular?

Hydrangea plant

Story at-a-glance -

  • Hydrangea is said to be one of the easiest ornamentals to grow, because some varieties can thrive in different climates and conditions
  • Read more about different hydrangea varieties, uses and benefits, as well as methods for growing, caring and storing the flowers

Hydrangeas, which belong to the Saxifragaceae family, have been renowned for their beautiful flowers. The hydrangea is an erectly growing shrub found naturally throughout North America and various Asian countries, and is a large genus of over 80 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and climbers. Hydrangea is said to be one of the easiest ornamentals to grow, because some varieties can thrive in many different climates and conditions.1,2,3

Different Hydrangea Varieties You Should Be Aware Of

There are numerous varieties of hydrangea, producing flowers of different sizes and colors:4

Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla): Also called florist’s hydrangea, garden hydrangea or French hydrangea, are the most common hydrangea variety. Bigleaf hydrangea is known for its thick, shiny, heart-shaped and short-stemmed leaves, which can grow 4 to 6 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide. There are three known types of bigleaf hydrangea:

Mophead hydrangeas: Flowers can either be purple, blue or pink. It’s the most recognized and popular hydrangea because of the large puffy flower heads.

Lacecap hydrangeas: These are said to be almost identical to mophead hydrangeas, although they have smaller fertile flower buds in the center and showy flowers around the flower head’s edge.

Mountain hydrangeas: They slightly resemble lacecap hydrangeas, but tend to have smaller flowers and leaves.

A unique type of bigleaf hydrangea you should be aware of is the Endless Summer® Hydrangea.5 It possesses the ability to re-bloom throughout spring and summer months, and can bloom 10 to 12 weeks longer than typical Bigleaf hydrangeas.

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens): This is native to the U.S., and is known as wild hydrangea. It’s usually planted as a hedge plant, although it can grow as a large shrub, sometimes reaching up to 6 feet tall. Smooth hydrangea flowers appear green upon the first opening, but whiten as the plant matures. Two popular smooth hydrangea cultivars include:

Annabelle: This is typically used to refer to all smooth hydrangeas, and was inspired by the town of Anna, Illinois where the first smooth hydrangea was said to have been discovered in the 1960s. This cultivar produces white and round flower heads resembling large snowballs, and can grow to be 12 inches in diameter.

Incrediball hydrangeas:6The shrub is classified as Hydrangea arborescens “Abetwo” Incrediball™. The term “Abetwo” is actually the cultivar name, while “Incrediball” is the trademark name. This cultivar is called “Incrediball” because of the impressive size of the plant’s rounded flower heads, which can resemble balls.

Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata): Panicle hydrangea is native to Japan and China, and is also called limelight hydrangea.7 This plant produces white flowers at first, but as the Panicle hydrangea matures,  the flowers begin to turn deep pink. The most popular cultivar of Panicle hydrangea is the PeeGee or “Grandiflora” hydrangea, which can grow exceptionally large and reach up to 25 feet in height. This particular cultivar is said to be your best bet if you want to grow a hydrangea tree.8

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia): Oakleaf hydrangeas are known for their leaves, which resemble those of oak trees. During the fall, oakleaf hydrangea leaves tend to change color and are the only known type of hydrangea to do this. The oakleaf hydrangea’s leaves are either bright red, golden orange or deep mahogany. As for its flowers, oakleaf hydrangeas develop white cone-shaped flower heads (which can be single blossom or double-blossom) that gradually turn pink as the plant matures.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea animola ssp. Petiolaris): It’s native to Asia, where it’s called the “Japanese hydrangea vine.” It’s increasing in popularity because of its ability to climb up walls and other structures, in some instances reaching 80 feet in height. Climbing hydrangeas can also be planted as a shrub when there’s no supporting structure present, reaching 3 to 4 feet in height. Once the plant matures, pleasantly fragrant white hydrangeas with lacecap-like flowers will bloom.

Take note that these are just some of the most basic types of hydrangeas. There are other unique-sounding hydrangea cultivars you can consider planting:9

Nikko Blue hydrangea

Cityline Mars hydrangea

Zinfin Doll hydrangea

Gatsby Pink hydrangea

BloomStruck hydrangea

Blue Deckle hydrangea

El Dorado hydrangea

You and Me Together hydrangea

Madame Emile Mouillere hydrangea

Miss Saori hydrangea

Unique hydrangea

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Benefits of Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas have different substances that can aid with improving health. For instance, hydrangin, a naturally occurring phytochemical solvent found in the plant, was suggested as the primary constituent that makes hydrangeas effective against kidney stones.

Other valuable nutrients that can be found in hydrangeas include flavonoids like kaempferol and quercetin, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and sulfur, all of which are believe to contribute to better health. Hydrangea’s main health benefits include:10

Diuretic: Hydrangeas may not just help with increasing urine flow, but also aid in addressing diseases caused by problems of the urinary system, such as headaches due to kidney problems, dropsy and chronic rheumatism. You can also try combining hydrangea with other herbs to help with treating an enlarged and inflamed prostate, provided that you get advice from your doctor first.

Lithotrophic: Hydrangeas were used to help dissolve gallbladder and kidney stones (more on this to come later), as well as bone spurs and muscle calcification.

Anti-inflammatory:11 This is due to the presence of alkaloids in hydrangeas that possess an effect similar to that of cortisone. Hydrangea has potential in easing infections and inflammations of the kidney, and relieving arthritis symptoms.

Hydrangea has also been suggested to facilitate the body in restoring calcium into the system.

What Can Hydrangeas Be Used For?

Because of the beauty of hydrangeas, they are used ornamentally and placed in containers, either as seasonal or holiday flowers. Hydrangeas can also be utilized as shrub and perennial border plants, and as foundation plantings. On the other hand, lacecap hydrangeas, which are showy and sterile flowers, are also often used to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies to the fertile buds in the center of the flower.12,13,14

Some hydrangea varieties are also valued for their healing abilities. The smooth hydrangea, which can be found in damp conditions along the East Coast, is the most coveted for its therapeutic properties. Native Cherokee Americans regarded smooth hydrangea as an esteemed herbal remedy, while early European settlers used this hydrangea to help expel and/or dissolve kidney stones in the body.15

People consumed hydrangeas by steeping the root and the rhizomes in boiling water for three to five minutes. Afterwards, the mixture is strained to create a tea. In some cases, herbs such as dandelion, gravel root, uva ursi and chanca piedra were combined with hydrangea to create teas and tinctures that can assist with promoting kidney health.

Hydrangeas were also used to help alleviate gallbladder issues and assist with treating conditions that had influence on the genitourinary system, such as urethritis, cystitis, prostatitis and prostate. Folk medicine has suggested that hydrangea roots can be mainly used as a diuretic that can encourage and augment urine flow and help enhance blood flow into the kidneys. As such, hydrangeas may aid in treating and reducing symptoms of urinary tract infection.16 Traditional healers have also emphasized hydrangeas’ potential in supporting kidney function by assisting with waste removal and hormone secretion.17

Hydrangea roots were also used as an herbal tonic because of their potential to enhance and fortify certain organs, the whole body or other systems. A tonic made from hydrangea roots can help strengthen health of organs in the urinary tract and detoxify these whenever necessary, helping the whole body gain increased vigor and strength.

How to Grow Hydrangeas

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, hydrangeas are best planted during the spring or fall.18 If you're set on planting hydrangeas, take note of these tips for elegant and eye-catching hydrangea flowers. Planting hydrangeas can be done via root cuttings:19,20

Select a hydrangea stem for cutting that’s at least 6 inches long, has no flowers and is new growth in the early fall (particularly during April to August). New growth stems have a lighter green color. If you live in an area with colder climate where hydrangea tends to die back to the ground, the hydrangea bush or shrub may consist of new growth.

Take a sharp pair of shears and cut the stem just below a leaf node, or where a set of leaves will be growing. The cutting must be at least 4 inches long and have at least one additional set of leaves above the leaf node. Snip the cutting from the stem.

Remove all but the topmost set of leaves from the hydrangea cutting and ensure that there are only two leaves left. Take these leaves and cut them in half, crosswise. If you have rooting hormone, dip the end of the hydrangea cutting in it.

Although the rooting hormone can help increase the possibility of successfully propagating a hydrangea plant, you can still propagate hydrangeas without it. Afterwards, stick the cutting into well-drained damp potting soil containing plenty of organic matter or humus.

Cover the pot or container with a plastic bag, making sure that it doesn’t touch the leaves of the cutting. Place the pot or container away from direct sunlight. Check the cutting every few days to make sure the soil is still damp. In around two to four weeks, the cutting will be rooted and the hydrangea propagation will be complete.

If you have enough space at home (whether a garden or a backyard), why not plant hydrangeas there? Here’s how to plant hydrangeas outside:21,22

Dig a large hole that’s approximately 2 feet across and 1 foot deep. It should be as deep as the root ball. While hydrangeas can grow without difficulty in various soils, fairly rich, porous and moist soil is highly ideal. If you think that the soil is poor-quality, try adding more compost.

Set the plant in the hole and fill it half full with soil. Water the plant first, and after the water is drained, fill the rest of the hole with soil and water thoroughly again. If you’re planting multiple hydrangeas, space them 3 to 10 feet apart.

Fertilize the plant using a general-purpose fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 applied at a rate of 2 cups per 100 square feet in March, May and July. Water the plant soon after fertilizing to help dissolve the fertilizer and send it into the soil. It’s not necessary to remove mulch when fertilizing. Ideally, trying watering the hydrangeas thoroughly once a week or more frequently.

Rich soils don’t need a lot of fertilizing. However, if the soil is light or sandy, feed the plants once a year during late winter or spring. Excessive amounts of fertilizer will cause the plant to produce more leaves and fewer flowers.

For the first year or two after planting, and if there is any drought, make sure hydrangeas get plenty of water. If the soil is too dry, the leaves will wilt. During the fall, cover hydrangea plants with bark mulch, leaves, pine needles or straw, to a depth of at least 18 inches.

If it’s possible, cover the entire plant (tip included) with cages made of snow fencing or chicken wire and loosely fill the cages with leaves. Avoid using maple leaves because of their tendency to break down quickly.

If you wish to grow a specific color of hydrangeas, determine the soil’s acidity — it’s a major factor. White blooms will always be white, while hydrangeas with naturally pink flowers tend to produce blue blooms. The closer the soil is to a balanced pH level of 6.5, the lighter the color of the hydrangeas.

Growing Different Types of Hydrangeas

If you're looking to plant a specific type of hydrangea, you have to take note of certain characteristics, such as the soil that the plant/s need and weather conditions that the plant can thrive in. These factors play a role in when and how long it will take for these hydrangeas to bloom:23

Bigleaf hydrangeas: They prefer a little shade, although not in excess, because it can lead to reduced flowering, and grow well in moist and well-drained soil. Bigleaf hydrangeas bloom June and July. If you want to plant any of the three types of bigleaf hydrangeas, take note of these requirements:

Mophead hydrangeas: This type of bigleaf hydrangea tends to thrive well in areas under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zone 6. Mophead hydrangea flower buds can be sensitive to cold temperatures and may not survive winter months.

Lacecap hydrangeas: Just like mophead hydrangeas, lacecap hydrangeas can thrive in hardiness zone 6.

Mountain hydrangeas: They can thrive in hardiness zone 5, and can be a great choice for planting in areas with late winter cold snaps because this type of hydrangea has hardier flower buds.

Smooth hydrangeas: This type of hydrangea can tolerate warmer climates. Smooth hydrangeas can thrive in hardiness zones 4 to 9, with blooming time occurring between June and September.

Panicle hydrangeas: This hydrangea is said to be one of the few types of hydrangeas that require several hours of sun, and can even tolerate full sun. Panicle hydrangeas are said to be the most cold-hardy out of the hydrangea plants, thriving in hardiness zones 4 to 7 and flowering from mid- to late summer.

Oakleaf hydrangeas: These hydrangeas may survive drier temperatures and can be more winter hardy. However, oakleaf hydrangeas should be planted in well-drained soil, because these are highly sensitive to water log. Furthermore, avoid planting oakleaf hydrangeas in areas with deep shade, as this can cause the plant’s fall foliage colors to fade. Oakleaf hydrangeas can survive in hardiness zones 5 to 9, with flowers blooming in early summer and lasting until late summer.

Climbing hydrangea: Growing climbing hydrangeas isn’t for the impatient, as it typically takes three to four years for this hydrangea to show signs of growth. This slow-growing plant can be planted in hardiness zones 4 to 8, with blooming time occurring during early to mid-summer.

How to Care for Your Hydrangeas and Keep Them Alive

After you’re finished planting, the main question becomes: how do I keep my hydrangeas alive? Here are some tips on caring for hydrangeas:24,25,26,27

Avoid planting hydrangeas in hot, dry and exposed locations. Lean on the safer side and grow hydrangeas in partial shade, but not too much, as excessive shade can reduce flowering. Take note that most hydrangea varieties are highly sensitive to weather changes.

For instance, weather conditions can damage hydrangeas that flower on the previous year's growths during the fall or winter, leading to a reduction of flowering during the summer. Damage to hydrangea plants may occur any time before the plant is completely dormant. Most damage occurs because of freezing, when temperatures drop below normal during early fall, late spring or winter.

Water your hydrangeas properly. These plants enjoy deep watering for at least once a week, especially during dry weather, and can also benefit from a boost of fertilizer once or twice a year in spring or in summer.

Mulch the plant to maintain cool and moist conditions for the roots.

Remove faded flowers and deadwood.

Pruning hydrangeas is a must to ensure that it grows well. It must be done in the summer as soon as flowering season is over. Avoid pruning in the late fall, winter or spring if you want flowers. Panicle and smooth hydrangeas tend to flower on the current year’s growth, and pruning in early summer can eliminate potential flower buds.

On the other hand, Bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on the previous year’s growth. Pruning these hydrangeas during the fall, winter or spring may remove potential flower buds.28,29

When pruning, ensure that all old flowering shoots must be removed down to the point on the stem where strong new growth is seen developing. Only prune stems that produced this year’s flowers, otherwise blooms will not appear on the plants next year. Once your hydrangeas are in full bloom and you wish to make beautiful hydrangea arrangements, take note of these instructions on how to properly cut hydrangea flowers:30

Cut flowers that are fully mature: petals must be fully open in the center of the bloom and color is evenly developed across the flower head. Only cut hydrangeas in the morning of the day after watering the plant so that flowers are fully hydrated. Have a bucket or container of water on hand and place cut hydrangea stems in it. It’s essential for the hydrangeas to stay hydrated until they are fixed in the arrangement.

Use clean standard pruning tools like bypass runners when cutting hydrangeas. Cleaning the pruning tool is important to avoid crushing the stem and help prevent bacterial contamination. Both these factors can shorten the life of a hydrangea arrangement.

Hold the knife or pruning tool in your dominant hand, so the blade is against the back of stem and tilted towards it at a 45-degree angle. Place your thumb in front of the stem, directly over the knife or pruning tool. Using your other hand, pull on the stem above the knife, slightly up and away from the blade.

Maintain pressure on the stem with your dominant thumb. The knife should end against your thumb, but mustn’t have force behind it that’ll cut your skin. Cut hydrangea stems that are slightly longer than your preferred length, and cut down to a leaf node or a lateral stem to maintain the form and health of the plant.

Cut hydrangeas have a vase life of six to 10 days. However, mature blossoms have a tendency to wilt prematurely if air becomes trapped in the stem and blocks the passage of water up to the flower.

To reduce air bubbles that can reduce their life span, try recutting stems at a 45-degree angle with the ends under water, plunging the cut ends of the stems in boiling water for 30 seconds or smashing the ends of the stems with a hammer (although some sources highlight that this tip can cause problems with water uptake).

Also, stripping off foliage on hydrangea stems can be beneficial as it may divert water away from the flowers. It also pays to consider the size of the arrangement and the container you’ll be using — shorter containers and arrangements can make it easier for water to make it up to the stem and eventually to the flower.

How to Dry Hydrangeas and Preserve Them

Once blooming season ends, hydrangeas turn either burgundy, brown, bronze or muted shades of cream and pale green. If you find it disheartening to see hydrangeas at this stage, don't worry. You can preserve these beautiful flowers by drying them. Dried hydrangeas can be placed in vases, wreaths or bouquets, and used in craft projects. The flowers can also last indefinitely, so long as these are kept out of direct light and humidity. Lynn Couiter of HGTV shares these steps for drying hydrangeas:31

Allow flowers to dry naturally on the plants: This period runs from August to October. Hydrangeas are ready for drying when the petals develop a kind of “vintage” look or mature to the extent that the flowers have the same color as parchment paper and have pink or green tints. The flowers can also feel papery.

Avoid cutting hydrangeas when blooms are at their peak or during a rainy spell: There’s a tendency that stems and leaves will hold too much water, and the flowers will not be able to dry fast enough to stay pretty. Timing is key as you wouldn’t want to wait too long and until the flowers are completely brown.

Snip the flowers on a cool morning: Cut hydrangea stems at an angle, at lengths measuring 12 to 18 inches. Remove leaves and place the stems in a jar of water that covers the stems about halfway. Place the jar in a cool spot out of direct or bright light and check periodically.

Once you’ve gathered hydrangea stems, avoid crowding them in the container. The different lengths of stems will assist in keeping the hydrangeas at different heights and enable good air circulation. Hydrangea blooms can be ready in around two weeks. If they’re still not ready, you can add a little more water and give the plant more time.

You can also dry hydrangea stems by hanging them upside down individually or in small bunches. These should be placed in a cool and dry spot out of direct sun. It’s advised that you check these stems periodically for dryness. Placing hydrangea stems inside a plastic container and covering them with silica or white sand is another way to dry the flowers. After two to four days, remove the stems and gently shake them clean.

Hydrangeas Offer Pleasantries Not Only to Your Garden, but Your Life Too

Now that you've learned more information about hydrangeas, you can see why they have become a popular choice for decorating houses, backyards or gardens. Apart from their appearance, however, hydrangeas bring a lot more to the table because of their various uses and benefits, some of which have been proven already many centuries ago. Growing hydrangeas provide two benefits at once: You can increase the beauty of your surroundings and potentially reap positive health impacts too.

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