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. boodely says:

    I love the paniculata; not such a fan of the blue puffs. Wyman’s entry on the Pee Gee says it’s overused, but the book is 30 years old and these things come in and out of fashion. I’m glad they’re in.

  2. Garden & Co. says:

    That’s right! The paniculata can hang out in a couple of hours of sunlight, too. Also, love oakleaf hydrangea and climbing hydrangea, too. It’s not just a “Nikko Blue” world, is it?

  3. margaret says:

    Welcome, Garden & Co. I have a great mass that’s finally developed of H. quercifolia, the oakleaf, and that will definitely tolerate shade. It took years to shape up, but now it looks great. Lost my giant old climber to renovations (let’s just say the contractor and I had a bad day that day) but a new one is finally starting to get going. Thanks for the added tips, and visit again soon.

  4. Brian G. says:

    I must admit i do like the blue. I only had one which I did indeed inherit with the house but early this summer it was done in when the new septic system was installed (I meant to move it, really, I did). There is also a small old pee gee on the other side of the property which rewarded me with tons of blooms after I pruned years of dead wood from it last fall. She’s kind of a blowsy old gal but I love her.

  5. Kathy says:

    Hi Margaret, I’m a convert, my conversion started with a great climber and was solidified with an Oakleaf that just won’t quit producing the most fantastic flowers and leaves. I love your photos!

  6. Cameron says:

    I used to grow all kinds of hydgrangeas at a previous house –lacecap from Manteo’s Elizabethan Gardens, oakleaf, pee gee, French, and Tardiva. Here, I have to select deer resistant plants, so I gave my Tardivas away to a friend…who reports that they are glorious! I have one little Endless Summer up against a fence behind big hollies, but the deer still find it. I love hydrangeas, so I enjoyed your article and photos.

  7. zina says:

    I have heard that there are some paniculatas that bloom about 4 weeks earlier – do you know anything about this?

    Also is there a paniculata that stays shorter? What about the cultivar Little Lambs?

    I love paniculatas, but I have been most unhappy with my annabelles. Does anyone else have this feeling?

  8. naturehills says:

    We have Oakleaf, Endless Summer and Pee Gee’s planted. The Endless Summer (blue hydrangeas) are our favorites. The recurring blooms add a dimension to our beds.

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Naturehills. Sounds like we don’t have to sell you on hydrangeas. :) Nice to see you and hope you’ll visit again soon.

  10. teaorwine says:

    I love the creamy panicles on my Oakleaf hydrangeas early in the blooming season. They are now turning a cinnamon-toasty brown.

  11. Dan says:

    Maybe it is a climate thing. We have a lot blues out here in the pacific northwest and in general they do well around here. The blues range in shade depending upon the minerals in the soil from deep purple to light blue with every shade in between. But the pinks are wonderful too I must admit and they seem exotic to me around here when I see them.

  12. margaret says:

    Welcome, Dan, with the PNW regional report. Yes, hydrangeas are a big feature of the gardens out your way (a great area to visit for anyone interested in garden touring). Hope all is well, and that we see you again soon.

  13. Andrew Ritchie says:

    If they’re sheltered enough from wind and other disturbances, hydrangeas look great in dried arrangements… if you’re into that sort of thing.

  14. Paula M. says:

    I love hydrangeas of all varieties. I have a climbing species doing well on a south facing stonewall but one species has me in a quandry.
    The plant (thinking it’s a Nikko blue variety) came from the landscaper 18 years ago, and flowered the first year (reddish color flower)but never, ever again. I’ve tried everything possible, to burlapping it (live in CT) and not pruning the stems at all.
    The hydrangea is facing south next to my stonewall in the front yard, in somewhat sandy soil. I have lately pruned it in June to see if new flowers come…NEVER! :( Some deadwood produces some new leaf growth but most stalks have to be deadheaded to the ground to permit new growth of the leaves. It’s a healthy plant, very tall and happy but an unhappy gardener seeing no flowers? Any help or suggestions, I’m glad to hear. Thanks, been a long time fan Margaret. Love your books and columns in MSL. :)

  15. Doug says:

    Should you want a blue hydrangea, there is an alternative to the moptop macrophylla. I grow Hydrangea japonica coerulea in my Columbia County, NY, garden. It’s a lacecap with a very dark blue center and lighter blue flowers in the surrounding rays. While it does bloom on old wood, I have them in a protected location and after the first year they have never failed to bloom, beautifully. An added bonus is excellent fall color. Hydrangeasplus has them.

    Zina, you might want to look at the paniculata “QuickFire,” which is supposed to bloom very early. And its habit is said to be less rangy than some of its siblings. I’m counting on that because I’ve just put one in a border and am hoping to be able to keep it to 5 X 5 or so.

  16. margaret says:

    Welcome to Paula M. and to Doug, nice to “meet” you both.

    @Paula: Is it being fed? Often plants fail to flower but thrive in other ways (lots of leafy growth) because they are getting too much Nitrogen. This can also be when they are adjacent to lawn areas that are being fed chemical fertilizer, by the way. Frost can take all your buds, if they swell in that sunny and warm spot too early in the spring, then get zapped. Or improperly timed pruning can do them in, too. The usual way to prune to be safe was to wait till after bloom (late summer) and just take out the oldest stems that have already flowered, since they were not going to do so again, and thereby make room for the strongest new shoots to develop nicely and hold the next crop of blossoms.
    Even following this carefully, sometimes in cold zones you lost your flower buds to severe winter weather, as I said.

    @Doug: Your blue H.j. ‘Coerulea’ sounds like a beauty…I prefer the lacecaps to the big, blowsy blue types for sure. I haven’t tried ‘QuickFire,’ and not sure I dare buy one more plant (oh, sure, I’m likely to stick to that promise, aren’t I?).

  17. The deer think hydrangeas are candy at my house. Actually yours look good enough to eat. They are my favorite flowering shrubs…in any color! So old fashioned ~ yet never out of fashion. Great post. Thanks, Rosemary.

  18. Kathryn says:

    Hello, all. I fell in asolute love with hydrangeas the first time I saw them in MSL, and again in “Somethings Gotta Give” where they are in gorgeous bloom outside Diane Keaton’s window – to die for. Then learned that they could be grown here in FL (west central coast) so ordered 3 for my birthday. Have a Nikko blue which is doing marvelously, a red (sorry, can’t remember the botanical name and I am at work!), and an Annabelle. The red is doing so, so, but, unfortunately, the Annabelle didn’t make it. They are pot grown and are next to the house, north facing. The Nikko actually has bloomed – pink and green flowers – which is fine with me, I’m totally thrilled. And I will get another Annabelle.

  19. margaret says:

    Welcome, Kathryn. Good to learn that you are doing well with the H. macrophylla varieties. Annabelle is durable, unkillable here, and is supposed to grow into Zone 9 I have read. Glad to hear you will try again. That’s the real secret of gardening: multiple failures leading to success. Experiment!

  20. James says:

    There’s a 6-7 foot mop top in the front lawn, so much a centerpiece that I often mow the lawn staring at its base and spiralling outward. It’s having a grand pink time right now, but may I ask, is there a particular time when you deadhead after the pink turns to brown?

  21. margaret says:

    Hi, James. I usually do deadhead when things get too ratty looking to bear, which depends on the rain, wind, temperatures. So an aesthetic choice, purely.

  22. Interesting to read about the deer eating Hydrangeas. In my garden in Sweden, these were one of the few plants they did NOT eat. I had a large, old H. paniculata ‘Gradiflora’ and nine H. paniculata ‘Limelight’ in the garden. Under them, I had a carpet of snowdrops, and in front of them Hostas. Huh, I really miss my garden (we’ve rented out the house until we go back to Sweden, and I have huge abstinency problems from my plants here in Seattle!).

  23. margaret says:

    Welcome, Joe. I haven’t tried that one, but if you do have a jpg at some point, you can upload it in the forums and I can cross-reference it here on the blog. All mine seem to be giants, frankly, making them unsuitable for anywhere you need a well-behaved shrub.

  24. Joe says:

    There is a relatively new, smaller form of Pee Gee called Pee Wee that I have at my house. Much more compact and neat growing for a smaller space. I will try to remember to take a picture of them.

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