the best hydrangeas aren’t blue

'Pee Gee' hydrangeaI‘VE NEVER ACTUALLY GROWN A BLUE HYDRANGEA. There, I’ve confessed. But my garden features perhaps a dozen large specimens of Hydrangea from late summer into autumn. They’re all panicle types, or H. paniculata, a somewhat-rangy breed but oh, so delightful to have around now as things wind down.

Not so many years ago, most nurseries only carried the old-fashioned classic we call Pee Gee, for H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (above), with giant conical trusses of white flowers in July that fade to pink and tan as autumn approaches. Perhaps you have a tree form?  It’s the kind of plant often “inherited” along with older houses, and I love passing big ones at nearby farms and gardens at this time of year.

Lately, though, as with so many other plants, there’s a proliferation of available cultivars of panicle hydrangeas, and I have tried many good ones: ‘Kyushu,’ ‘Pink Diamond,’ ‘Unique,’ ‘Limelight’ (an unusual recent color break with greenish flowers), and more that I cannot even bother to recall.  Some have giant trusses, others smaller; some lacier and some more dense.

The straight species they’re all was derived from, H. paniculata, has large flowerheads like the Pee Gee, but they’re more refined, not so overblown…kind of the “lace-cap” of panicle hydrangeas.  You don’t see the species on the market much, but you will find its close lookalike ‘Tardiva,’ to my mind the best of all the paniculatas. Those are its flowers earlier in the season (below). It’s been around for many years, but is finally getting more attention.

tardivaLike the two Pee Gee shrubs that came with my 1880s house, my big old ‘Tardiva’ wants to take over the bed I’ve had it in for a dozen or 15 years. Since they bloom on new wood (unlike the blue H. macrophylla types), they get a hard pruning each April or early May, just before growth begins again, some years resulting in a shapelier creature than others, I’ll admit. I try, but by season’s end, these beasts look more like a giant octopus of branches, a real tangle, and “seeing” the desired cuts can require a truly zen mental state.

And that’s the thing: H. paniculata is definitely a rangy beast, as I say, not a pleasing thing to have in too many front-and-center places, as it looks less than stellar a portion of the growing season.

Since they’re really spectacular in fall, when we’re all feeling a little tired, I prune the biggest-flowered ones like Pee Gee to accentuate that feeling, as in the photo at the bottom of the post. Instead of making my cuts farther back to form a plant that’s upright and tree-like and perky, the blooms literally drip from the branches.

Whichever variety you decide upon, you may notice a difference year to year in the size of the flowerheads, which can also vary somewhat according to how you prune. If you cut the plant back very hard, you’ll likely prompt fewer but bigger flowers; if left to bloom on a twiggy thicket, there will be more but smaller ones.

Bone hardy to Zone 3 (unlike its moptop, blue-flowered cousin H. macrophylla), adaptable to part shade, and a welcome sight from the time the garden starts to burn up in late summer right through the fall: Hydrangea paniculata.  For all its desire to act out and become a wild jungle unto itself, I indulge and even love it. You? Or is blue more your thing?

Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora' or Pee Gee, pruned long to allow blooms to cascade down

  1. joyce says:

    Can’t help myself–I adore the mopheads. They aren’t summer blue now, though. They are turquoise and green and light blue on the inner side and russet red and green on the outer side. They are to die for!(and to cut)

    The Annabelles are now dark lime green except for all the new white ones taking the places of the dozens I’ve cut through the summer. And they are very well behaved. They look wonderful with pink anemones by their side and Callicarpa(Beauty Berry) behind and above them. Wouldn’t trade the Annabelles for the world.

  2. margaret says:

    Welcome, Suzanne. Glad to hear that your Hydrangea is resurrected. Good for you. I haven’t made tomato relish, but maybe next year…

  3. suzanne says:

    Also inherited a Hydrangea with our 1880s home in N.J. My gardening sister in law said it was dead. Cut it back in early September, now growing like crazy. It is Halloween! Making lots of tomato relish with the green leftovers and also tried tomato mincemeat. OK but not as good. Love your blog and the comments re: Obama election day. Keep composting, ready the garden for spring and get out and vote!!

  4. Karen says:

    Hi Margaret~
    We are gearing up for Spring here (can you believe?!) here is the Dallas area & I would like to plant a pee gee- my favorite!
    I am having trouble locating a good sized tree & was wondering if you could recommend a nursery? As I understand it unless you have a tree that was “inherited” w/ an old house, you need to purchase one that was grafted onto the root stock of a tree. Am I understanding that right? When I inquire here at my local nurseries, they are not familiar w/ them. I would love to get my hands on the biggest most established pee gee tree there is- short of visiting the old farm & digging one up. What do you recommend??

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. Tricky from region to region, isn’t it? One area’s commonplace is another’s rarity.

      Monrovia, a gigantic wholesaler, grows H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora,’ or Pee-Gee hydrangeas (ask your nursery if they order from them), and some varieties shape up better into tree forms than others over time. Pick a plant with a strong central trunk to start with–not shrubby, multi-branching specimens–and see if this helps. The variety ‘Tardiva’ or straight H. paniculata are good choices for training into a tree or standard.

  5. marci says:

    check out the hydrangeas they’ve planted in both madison square park and union square park. I’ve been trying to snag a clipping but I’m too afraid I’d get caught. They’re absolutely fabulous — they look like oak leaf hydrangea but the flowers are bigger as are the leaves. It’s so nice to see what the city parks department has done. Not to mention the High Line.

  6. Barbara Zanghi says:

    2nd batch of gazpacho, 2 zebra, 2lemon boy,1lg cherokee purple(not),2old German tomatoes,2ribs celeryw/leaves,4 thick slices red onion,1/2 yellow & 1/2 green bell peppers,2med.size pickling cumcumbers,several lg basil leaves 6/8, 3Tbs white balsamic vinegar pear infused,1/2c mild Italian olive oil,sorry 1can Campell’s Beef Broth water rinsed can, 1t.kosher salt this was done in 2 batches w/my Waring glass blender,my daughter stopped by w/granddaughterto show off her cut, looked in the fridge outcame the just finished gazpacho,she allowed herself 2 servingsw/garnish of hucked corn, and Igave her Tuscancrackers those popular little rectangles. I saw yourgreat looking tomatoes afew nights ago.BZ Love your inspiring Gardening ideas, weeds and all

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Barbara. Sounds like the soup was a hit, to say the least. Thanks for the encouraging words, and don’t be a stranger.

  7. Mary Jane says:

    I’ve been reviving an older garden with classic bones. Thought the moppy (blue and pink) hydrangeas would be best. But just tonight, before reading your blog, I brought home a “limelight” and I love it. Even though it’s a classic too, it has kind of a fresh “hipster” feel to it.

    Also, used to care for several inherited “shooting star” variety; haven’t seen any at nurseries. Are they still around?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mary Jane. ‘Limelight’ is really nice, great choice, and it doesn’t get too gigantic. As for ‘Shooting Star’ (which I think has various names that further confuse things, like I believe ‘Fuii Waterfall’ and someting else that eludes me) I do think it’s out there…why not inquire at a place like Wilkerson Mills (hydrangea specialists), requesting their catalog? Hope that helps (and sorry if it leads to a hopeless hydrangea shopping binge). :)

  8. Joan says:

    I’m in the “love ’em all” class. My Nikko Blue make wonderful dried flowers to take us through the winter. (Nowhere near the candles that brighten the dark though. I learned that in a hurry.) The oak leaf of unknown name that keeps spreading itself until I hardly have room to park my car, and a newcomer, “Snowflake,” still growing, “Blushing Bride,” out of “Endless Summer, to darken the shade, and my new favorite, “Pinky Winky” paniculata, pinking up beautifully at the moment.

    I have “Fuji Waterfall,” which only this year showed how lovely it is, mostly held up by wrong placement and a grazing deer two years ago. I originally found it at White Flower Farm.

    My least favorite is the lacecap, not “Fuji.” It’s lovely for a while then blah, blah, blah, and a space hog to boot. I keep thinking I’m cutting it back to size, but no luck. One year it didn’t bloom when the southwest winds off Smithtown Bay, here on Long Island, nipped the buds.

    Don’t know how I’d live without hydrangeas, but the deer are slowly getting closer, and I may find out.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Joan. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that perhaps you had a growing addiction to Hydrangea. :) As for deer…I put up a giant fence years ago after too many heartbreaks.

  9. maureen says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I planted two pink diamond trees this spring and two tardiva which were looking beautiful before I left for vacation. when i came back, the deer had eaten all the blooms off, what a disappointment! I’m thinking of maybe placing bird netting over them next year…any other suggestions?

  10. louise says:

    We have an inherited H. paniculata tree in front of our 1890s Petite Victorian house. After pruning, we discovered several different white Hydrangeas in our side and back yard. After removing pine trees that were too crowded and touching the house, found we have a blue one. Amazing.

    Not to complain too much, but no links opened successfully in this article.


    1. Margaret says:

      @Louise: I just went into this old article and found 2 links (pruning and one other) were bad and updated them — but the rest all work. See if it helps.

  11. Laura Eisener. says:

    It really is amazing how lovely H. paniculata looks all fall. I planted one for a client a decade ago, a tree form in a narrow bed between a house and long driveway. In October the flowers have turned pink and the leaves yellow- with the dramatic form and a variety of textures and colors in the perennials beneath (Heuchera ‘Burgundy Lace’, Baptisia sphaerocephala, and Amsonia hubrichtii to name a few) it is stunning.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Laura. Few plants have as exciting a combination of fall colors, right? I love that Amsonia as well — keep meaning to make a space for a stand of it!

  12. Barb Silva says:

    Although I am from N.E. where the hydrangeas are gorgeous especially down In Cape Cod, I now live in N.C….and my LOVE for these beautiful flowers remains. I have sprayed them with hair spray in the fall when they turn that glorious color of green and rust, and use them in vases until the spring. However, you can bet I have those mopheads on my dining rm table, in my bathroom….wherever I need a “piece of love” to make me smile…..

    1. margaret says:

      They’re beauties, Barb — but here in the Berkshires area I do best with the paniculatas. Love the hair spray idea! :) Hope to see you soon again, and thanks for saying hello.

  13. Elaine L says:

    Hi, thanks for speaking to our Bethlehem Garden
    Club. You were very inspiring to us. I have a Limelight Hydrangea and it grows to 10 feet tall
    every year after I trim it. I love it and hope it will do well after I move it. Hope to see you on you open garden dates. el

  14. Margaret Hinshaw says:

    You guys should check out Hydrangeas Plus. I am lucky enough to live in Oregon and can go to the retail sales days – amazing! Last time I bought 12. OMG. They have an amazing assortment.

  15. Bonita says:

    Hi Margaret. I have been “power-listening” to your podcasts as I drive, clean, mow, was dishes, and other tasks which allow me to concentrate on a topic rather than what I am doing. I have a question about Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ – one that I planted exactly 9 years ago today, when it was only about 14″ tall. Mine today stands about 6.5 ft tall and delivers white panicles and although I think the flowers were supposed to turn pink throughout the summer, mine has never done that. It stands on the outer edge of my small front-yard garden, and when I planted it, I really had no idea what I wanted in that space. Putting it on the outer edge has been not a good idea as it has aged, as it keeps the morning sun off of the other plants in that space.

    My question is, do you think it is possible to move this tree? I had no idea it was nine years old until I looked up my old receipt from Direct Gardening. I keep the tree trimmed back to a manageable height and in winter I have been cutting it back to keep it smaller. But I really don’t like the spot but I hate to cut it down. I would appreciate your suggestions. This particular plant has never been on my top 20 flowers of interest, but I still do like it, and don’t want to end its life.

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, it will involve some serious digging but absolutely portable. You will probably want to cut back more than usual to make the move easier. A friend recently had to redo some underground piping at his place and had to move a whole row of old ones and they all came through great — again, it was a LOT of digging, and he had to get some help!

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