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June 1, 2010 > Pat Kite's Garden: Happy hydrangeas

Pat Kite's Garden: Happy hydrangeas

By Pat Kite

The hydrangea is still occasionally called "Hortensia." Philibert de Commerson, a French botanist investigating unknown plants on Mauritius Island, decided the flower should be named after Hortense de Nassau, daughter of the Prince of Nassau, a fellow botanist. There was some squabbling over the name, however, due to botanists' competitive nature. Consequently, scientists have come up with at least 370 garden hydrangea varieties over the years, and there is still a Hydrangea macrophylla hortensia among the melee.

From whence comes hydrangea? The seed capsules of hydrangeas are jar shaped, so the ancient Greeks used these capsules to carry water from wells. Thus, "hydor" = water and "angeion" = vessel, so hydrangea = water vessel. Depending on which tome you read, the original hydrangea was found in China centuries ago. It is said that someone strolling along saw a wild plant in bloom and thought it was pretty. He then dug it up and took it home, where it grew happily. Soon enough, gardeners in China and Japan meandered into the hills and dug up more of the flowers. Of course, over time people fiddled with the plant, so the pretty blooms became even more beautiful.

Fast forward to 1790; a Chinese ship carrying tea had a shrub with coarse leaves and many clusters of large pink flowers on board. It was one of the many plant acquisitions brought into England by the famed naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks. People became excited when their shrub occasionally showed up with blue flowers. In 1796, Botanical Magazine lauded a potted plant that had reddish flowers one year and blue the next. People thought of it as a "chameleon" plant.

In 1818, a fantastic blue-flowered specimen was found in the cottage garden of a very poor family. At the time, hydrangeas in England were still rare. The lady of the house was offered a significant sum to part with the plant. She refused, saying one of her children, who had later died, was the original caretaker of the plant. Well, farthings do speak, and the lady did part with a few cuttings. All the resultant flowers were pink. If you want blue, you must add aluminum sulfate to the soil, applied before the plant starts blooming. Old-time gardeners would bury bits of iron or aluminum in the soil. If you want reddish, you add lime or lots of superphosphate. Pink is alkaline soil, which we tend to have around here.

Most hydrangeas are deciduous shrubs. In the right atmosphere, they can get a goodly size. Hydrangeas prefer good soil, mostly sun and regular water. It is best to avoid the climbing type, as it clings to anything-trellis, walls, and roof. Many people grow hydrangeas for indoor dried arrangements. For easy instructions, check out http://gardening.about.com/od/craftsanddecor/ss/Dried_Hydrangea_3.htm

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