A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Climbing Hydrangea in Bloom

No garden should be without climbing hydrangea, which will happily climb up a tree, native stone, masonry walls—or, in my garden—a galvanized pipe wrapped in narrow pine boards from Home Depot.

 

Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris overall 061113 640

 

Thanks to this vining shrub's sensational bark, the show in Winter is seriously exciting. In early Summer, this ten-foot pillar of woody growth is fluffy with foliage as well as flowers. The setting is a tight opening in a box hedge topped by an arch of variegated weeping dogwood, with a pollarded gold-leaved Scots elm at the rear to provide bright contrast. With fearless selection and diligent training over many years, horticulture can echo architecture with nearly Baroque theatricality.

 

At close range, the flowers of Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris are elegant if not (at least for a hydrangea) original: a mass of fuzzy apetalous fertile flowers spangled at its periphery by large-petaled sterile flowers.

 

Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris cluster overall 061216 640

 

The more you look, the more details of the fertile flowers you see. Starbursts of stamens seems to have just exploded from round ovaries the color of honeydew melon flesh.  

 

Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris cluster closer 061216 640

 

The closer you look at the sterile flowers, the more you confirm that—whoops—there aren't enough details to make higher-magnification inspection worth the time: four or five pure white petals surround a pointy bump.

 

Below, an even closer look at the fertile flowers. Emerging from the center of each melon-ball-like ovary are two or three T-shaped creamy white pistils.

 

Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris cluster fertile flowers 061216 640

 

Even a young vine such as mine can bear many hundreds of fertile flowers (and just a few score of infertile ones). If given large enough structures to cover, climbing hydrangeas can bear tens of thousands of fertile flowers. And yet self-seeding isn't a problem. Indeed, in my many decades of planting Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris in clients' gardens, and many years of enjoying it in my own, I've never encountered self-seeding, or even heard of reports of it. Thank goodness! This hydrangea can climb sixty feet up a tree, making dead-heading impossible.

 

Come to think of it, does any hydrangea self-seed? These shrubs are prolific bloomers—the main reason for their universal popularity—so it's not as if the flowers aren't there and at the ready. Perhaps Asian forms such as this one and the equally popular PG hydrangeas might not set fertile seed in North America because their preferred pollinator isn't present. But Hydrangea arborescens is native from New York to Florida and, yet, is still not known for troublesome self-seeding even here in the heart of its native territory.

 

Fertile hydrangea flowers mature to tiny seed capsules that aren't ornamentally significant. Although the seeds are as fine as dust, this authoritative source reports that they are easy to harvest, store, and germinate. Fortunately, if mysteriously, it isn't easy for the seeds to germinate on their own, otherwise all of our gardens would be overwhelmed by hydrangea seedings. In fifty-plus years of gardening, have I ever seen a hydrangea seeding?

 

If gardening is to be tolerable decade after decade, let alone enjoyable, it must provide a balance of reassuring certainties and new developments, unfolding realizations and unfathomable mysteries. Then there will always be more to discover, plus enough plausible opportunities for durable achievement to make the inevitable failures bearable. 

 

That omnipresent shrubs such as hydrangeas are at once peerlessly floriferous, unable to self-seed, and yet—judging by the ever-increasing number of cultivars—still easy to hybridize, is one of gardening's most welcome mysteries. That their flowerheads often dry in place, last for months, and are themselves ornamental is a further bonus: Without needing to dead-head, we can enjoy them without worrying about volunteers even as the flowerheads, presumably, shed thousands of seeds a week.

 

 

Here's how to grow this essential vining shrub, as well as a detailed look at its remarkable branching and bark when it's leafless in Winter.

 
 
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