Blog September 7, 2023

High Five for Hydrangeas!

High Five for Hydrangeas!


If you were to come and visit me, you would notice several colors of Hydrangeas in my yard.  For some reason I am in love with this plant!

The word origin of hydrangea comes from the Greek words for water, hydros and jar, angos because some species are quite water thirsty. The hydrangea was first cultivated in Japan but is native to both Asia and the Americas.

Who has not spent an evening, drinking sweet tea on Grandma’s porch, enchanted by her silver hair, but mostly … her blue hydrangeas? Known as “Grandmother’s Old-fashioned Flower,” hydrangeas are a staple in Virginian landscapes — and weddings.

But, they are not loved by our grandmas and brides alone. The modern world is infatuated with hydrangeas; they win global awards and are featured in celebrity weddings. Also called “The Madonna” of flowering shrubs, hydrangeas have a reputation of being “the perfect shrub” — show-stopping blooms, elegant foliage and understated beauty.

No doubt, Virginians have good taste to love a plant that the world worships. Locally, the smooth hydrangea, or Hydrangea arborescens, is popular as a stand-alone plant in gardens. The oakleaf variety, Hydrangea quercifolia, makes a lovely informal hedge. Over an arbor, the climbing hydrangea flourishes, the Hydrangea anomala. Additionally, the ever-popular Hydrangea macrophylla makes an unparalleled hedge with its floppy mopheads of blooms.


Hydrangeas in North America


Two well-known hydrangea species, among others, grow wild in North America — the H. aborescens (smooth leaf) and H. quercifolia (oak leaf). Their actual cultivation began in the 1700s. An historic trifecta of our forefathers’ estates is proof: Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier all cultivated these hydrangeas.

Documents show that in 1792, George Washington planted a native hydrangea, H. arborescens, on the bowling green at Mount Vernon.  Nearby, Thomas Jefferson was designing his gardens and walkways at Monticello. He also included these new shrubs. Today, heirloom H. quercifolia seeds may be obtained from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants in Monticello. 

Both men purchased their seeds and plants from their friend, William Bartram, of Bartram’s Nursery in Philadelphia. James Madison’s home, Montpelier, also benefited from Bartram’s nursery. Creamy white heads of H. arborescens still border Montpelier’s garden wall.


But, who was William Bartram? He was the son of John Bartram, and together, the Bartrams are remembered as perhaps the earliest and greatest American naturalists and botanists. In the 1700s, John and son William explored the American southeast and unspoiled southern Appalachian Mountains, collecting and identifying indigenous plants.

They documented two major native hydrangea specimens. John first came across H. arborescens (smooth hydrangea) in the 1730s. This plant was described in Gronovius’s work, Flora Virginica, 1739. In 1776, William discovered H. quercifolia, the beautiful oakleaf hydrangea native to Georgia. These two varieties of native American hydrangeas formed the groundwork for cultivated hydrangeas, which spread across the states. Concurrently, they were delivered in large volumes in the famous “Bartram’s Boxes” to England and Europe.

Interestingly, before the Bartrams supported the cultivation of hydrangeas, Native Americans had long been using wild hydrangeas medicinally. From them, the colonists discovered their roots were useful as painkillers, as well as for kidney, bladder and other ailments.

Eastern Hydrangeas Meet the West

Many hydrangeas are believed to have originated in Japan. Hydrangeas have a long, documented history there. They are often mentioned in poems composed during Japan’s Nara Period, 710-794 A.D. Japanese diplomats brought them to Hangzhou, China, during China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907 A.D. From there, they were carried throughout continental Asia.

Hydrangeas hold a solid role in Japanese culture. The hugely popular Ajisai (hydrangea) festivals are celebrated in the blooming seasons of late spring and summer. Pink hydrangeas are given on the fourth wedding anniversary. Hydrangea gardens often grace the grounds of sacred Buddhist temples.  On April 8, Buddha’s birthday, amacha, or tea from heaven, is enjoyed. Amacha is brewed from leaves of the Hydrangea serrata.

Westerners collided with Japan’s hydrangeas via two adventurers from the Dutch East India company. Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1715) and later, Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), were two physicians in search of new medicinal plants. Before their visit to Japan, the West was unaware of these magnificent ornamentals and their role in Japanese life. For centuries, Japan had not been open to foreigners on the island, for cultural and religious reasons.

But, Carl Peter Thunberg managed to collect two hydrangeas in Japan, on the pretext of foraging for fodder for his goat. He described them as Viburnum macrophyllum and Vibernum serratum. Thunberg was later credited for the final names given to these most popular hydrangeas, Hydrangea macrophylla and Hydrangea serrata.


An unassuming Englishman brought attention to more Japanese hydrangeas. Charles Maries was a hired “plant hunter” sent to China and Japan in the mid 1800s. His mission was to gather specimens for the famous Veitch Nursery of Exeter, England. He returned with two hydrangeas from Japan — a mophead, H. macrophylla mariessii, which can still be purchased today, and a mountain hydrangea, H. ‘Rosea’.

Unfortunately, Veitch Nursery in Exeter was unimpressed with Maries’ hydrangeas. These plants were then introduced in Paris, France, in 1901, at the Société d’Horticulture. The hydrangeas took center stage. With admiration for these plants, French horticulturists began the quest to breed perfect showstopper French hydrangeas. Their success and enthusiasm mushroomed, spreading throughout much of Western Europe, and eventually throughout the world.


Modern Hydrangea Fame

Case in point — in 2018, a hydrangea received the coveted Plant of the Year Award at the prestigious Royal Horticulture Society Chelsea Flower Show. Based in the U.K., the Royal Horticulture Society is THE leading gardening charity in the world. They bequeathed a hydrangea called the Runaway Bride Snow White with first place. An H. macrophylla (big leaf hydrangea), this Japanese hybrid can produce six times the number of normal blooms.


Europe boasts two famous hydrangea hot spots. The Shamrock Garden Hydrangea Collection, at Varengeville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France, is the largest collection of its kind in the world. Robert and Corinne Mallet, leading authorities on hydrangeas, have created and maintain this two hectare (five acre) garden as a research, teaching and resource center for hydrangea lovers.

The exotic Azores contain a hydrangea phenomenon. On the lovely Faial Island, thousands of deep blue H. macrophylla (mophead hydrangea) flourish in abundance in July and August. The island is nicknamed the “Blue Island”. Island families lovingly care for these shrubs to perpetuate this living museum.

In 2017, the world learned that fifteen new species of hydrangea were identified in the mountains of South America. Hydrangea lover Daniel J. Hinkley, a well-known plant hunter and author, revealed this advance. Obviously, the story of hydrangeas continues to expand globally, though for most of us, the hydrangeas in Grandma’s garden hold the most meaning.

Hydrangeas 101

Tidewater Virginia is in growing Zone 7 and is a zone that is hydrangea friendly. There are three hydrangea species that are popular in our region.


Hydrangea macrophylla — These are the “mophead” or “big leaf” variety. They have huge, showy blossoms and many exquisite colors.

Hydrangea arborescens — One of the native North American species, these are small to medium shrubs that flower in the late spring and summer. They have serrated leaves, and are referred to as the “smooth leaf” variety.

Hydrangea quercifolia — Another of the native North American plants, these are dubbed the “oakleaf” hydrangea. They are hardy in hot, dry summers and produce large blooms. Their magic also lies in their fall foliage—their leaves turn to red, orange and yellow with the shortening days.

Hydrangeas generally prefer partial shade to full sun. They can be planted anywhere — in pots, as an informal hedge, along foundations and fences, or as stand alones in a flower bed. Shrubs

Hydrangeas have different pruning needs — some are pruned in late winter; others are best pruned after the first flowering. Be sure to check online or with a gardening center to find out when a specific hydrangea should be pruned.

Hydrangeas lose their leaves in the winter, and can look sparse in the garden. Plant evergreens near them to keep the landscape looking cheery during cold months. If a very cold winter is predicted, spread extra mulch to protect the roots.


Hydrangea flowers can change color, depending the pH of the soil (white hydrangeas do not change color, however). Alkaline soil will produce pink blooms; acidic soil will produce blue blooms. Soil can be tested for acidity. To make soil more alkaline for pinker blooms, add dolomitic lime to the soil. For bluer flowers, add soil sulfur or aluminum sulfate. These products can be found at a garden center, complete with directions for use. A free way to make soil acidic is to save coffee grounds and egg shells from the kitchen, and mix them into the soil. This will also give you that hydrangea blue that is unmistakably unique.


Flower Color Matters

While undeniably beautiful, the hydrangea symbolizes many different things from heartfelt emotion to frigidity and bad luck. Most of the stories surrounding hydrangeas are several centuries old but they still affect how we view the flowers today.

When gifting hydrangea flowers to friends or family, make sure to pick the right color to avoid hard feelings. Don’t worry though, we’ve got you covered with some insight into the meaning of the most common shades!

While hydrangeas symbolize different things across cultures, the meanings of the distinct colors are mostly uniform around the world. When you’re looking for the right hydrangea to express your feelings or intentions, no matter where you are, make sure to pick the right color.

Blue Hydrangea

As you already know, the Japanese tradition behind the blue hydrangea derives from the legendary apology of the emperor to his girlfriend. Whether you are in Japan or elsewhere in the world, the blue hydrangea symbolizes your gratitude and understanding for someone else and is always a thoughtful way of admitting that you’re sorry.


White Hydrangea

The white hydrangea symbolizes arrogance, vanity or boasting. This meaning probably stems from Victorian times, when men gifted the flowers to prospects they desired. White, however, also symbolizes purity and grace which makes white hydrangeas a beautiful and fitting addition to Easter bouquets!


Pink Hydrangea

Pink hydrangeas symbolize true feelings and are a great fit for spring and summer wedding bouquets or table arrangements. Some say pink hydrangeas carry sincere emotions and the meaning of love. Take a closer look at the individual blossoms and you’ll find they resemble a heart!


Purple Hydrangea

Last but certainly not least, the purple hydrangea represents the desire for deep understanding and is often chosen for gifts around the fourth wedding anniversary. The color purple is associated with pride, royalty and gratefulness across many cultures and certainly a beautiful way of showing appreciation for your partner after four years of marriage.


Hydrangea Facts

Hydrangeas are more than just pretty to look at. They have some surprising tricks up their leaves that make them a fascinating plant to novices and experts alike. Check out the facts below!

The different colors hydrangea blossoms display are directly related to the levels of acidity in the soil.

To bloom in a vibrant to soft baby blue, the hydrangea needs acidic soil with a pH level below 5.5. For purple hydrangeas, the ideal pH level has to be anywhere from 5.5. to 6.5. Hydrangeas that are grown in soil with pH levels above 7 bloom in pink and even red. Grounds with different levels of acidity nearby can lead to beautiful color washes even within the same flower heads.

If you think the colorful flowers are petals, you have been deceived.


They are sepals, which are modified leaves that protect the flower bud. The beautiful color variations happen as the sepals age and the overpowering pigments turn the flowers from mundane greens into colorful beauties.


Hydrangea leaves contain low levels of the poison cyanide.

Though rarely fatal, consuming the leaves can cause diarrhea, nausea and even seizures so parents of children and pets alike should make sure the flowers are out of reach.


Uses for Hydrangea

While you shouldn’t snack on the hydrangea leaves in your garden or bouquet (for reasons explained above), the leaves of the Hydrangea serrata are used by Buddhists to brew a sweet tea consumed as part of a cleansing ritual. It is said to help treat autoimmune disorders as well as malaria, kidney stones and enlarged prostate.

In Western culture, the hydrangea has many different uses. Native Americans used the root as a diuretic and the bark as pain relief specifically for muscle pain and burns.

The hydrangea has a rich history that explains why there are so many different meanings associated with it. Though they can be quite confusing, we hope our color guide helped you understand the flower a little better.

The sheer size and variation of color make the hydrangea a beautiful garden plant that will leave others in awe of your sanctuary. If you don’t own your own green space, enjoy the lush flowers in a beautiful bouquet that will brighten any room with its sweet scent and vibrant blossoms.


So plant you some of these wonderful flowers!  You will be happy you did!