"A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom." — Toni Morrison, from Tar Baby
In front of Rachel Schechter Zimmerman's home in Huntington Woods, several hydrangeas abloom in pale green shades grace the entryway.
“I love how long the blooms last and that they take up a lot of space,” said Zimmerman, a busy mother of three. The art director especially notices their shapes and hues. Her favorite tone is that “yellow-y, whitish green,” she said. “And I like that they’re in mass.” Her artistic eye enjoys soaking up their color “against all that green foliage. It’s stunning … clean and classic.”
Speaking of art, artist Alice Frank of West Bloomfield also adores hydrangeas. “When I observe them, they make me happy,” she said of the big, puffy blooms. “I enjoy seeing them because they make everything brighter.”
The Zimmerman and Frank homes are two of hundreds upon hundreds in this area that showcase these old-fashioned shrubs that bloom in white, pale green, pink, blue, violet and a deep violet. They’re popular in this area for a reason, area garden experts say. Several of the varieties do well for Zone 6 (pretty much most of southeast Michigan).
Driving around Oakland County you’re likely to see mophead hydrangeas, with their big, dome-shape clusters of flowers, in blue, pink or white. Most mopheads grow best in moist, well-drained soil and a bit of afternoon shade. You’ll also spot the mophead cousin, lacecaps, which have a more delicate look. They form a flower head composed of a ring of colorful florets surrounding lacy, small florets.
Favorite hydrangea varieties include limelight (think chartreuse, which changes to pink in fall) and the Annabelle hydrangea, one of the hardiest types. It produces large snowy-white clusters of showy florets. Sometimes called snowball hydrangea, Annabelle is also one of the best hydrangeas for deep shade.
The endless summer hydrangea variety is a rebloomer that features big mophead clusters of blue or pink flowers. Also showy: The big daddy mophead, which boasts up to 14-inch-wide clusters of blue or pink blooms. With strong stems, they are great for cutting.
What’s your hydrangea fancy?
It seems each hydrangea lover has his or her own favorite hue for various reasons. Frank, for example, would like to see more blue in her hydrangea color palette.
“I would give my eye teeth to have mine turn blue,” she said. “I have tried all the ‘mystical’ ways to make it happen but it doesn’t.”
Garden experts say Frank and other hydrangea owners who want to experiment with color should learn more about their soil’s acid levels. Mophead and many lacecap hydrangeas are sensitive to soil Ph and the blooms reflect this. In acidic soils, flowers tend to blue; in more alkaline soils, blooms tend toward pink, said Cathy Rosenhaus, a landscape designer and owner of Garden Designs. She oversees gardens for several area homeowners.
“Hydrangeas have a color range that depends on the variety and it’s also dependent on the Ph of the soil,” Rosenhaus said. “For instance, a nikko blue, all summer beauty or endless summer hydrangea's color will range from baby blue to deep purple — the more acidic the soil, the bluer. You can add lime to the soil to raise the Ph. Varieties like paniculata grandiflora, Annabelle and oak leaf have white flowers that will not turn blue," Rosenhaus said.
Leslie Cunningham, a plant specialist at in Rochester Hills, explains that hydrangeas grown in Metro Detroit will not turn blue or remain blue after planting if the soil's acidity is not changed. "On the west side of the state, they (the blue varieties) will be and stay blue naturally," she explained. "That is also why blueberries grow better on the west side of the state."
“Quite frankly, I prefer the pink blooms,” said Amy Fortin, a certified master gardener from Birmingham. “The blue looks very fake to me.” She suggests that homeowners who want a foolproof hydrangea that can bloom in blues and pinks consider the “forever and ever series hydrangea, which can meet most of the color needs a person may have in a fairly reliable hydrangea ... even blue without adding much to the soil.”
Royal Oak artist Laurie Eisenhardt also has contemplated hydrangeas’ many colors. Biking from nearby in the morning, she often will, along the way, look at a well-maintained garden with blooming blue and pink hydrangeas.
“They exist at a most traditional, earthy, autumnal painted home and seem ‘other worldly’ with their intense tones,” Eisenhardt said. “They possess an almost flamboyant presence.”
Eisenhardt, a tile artist, grows the peegee variety along the alley behind her home. “At best, they bloom white, turning pale pink,” she said. “Since I am not a ‘blue’ person, I feel OK about my hydrangeas.” As an artist, she said she’d like to see the “other worldly" hydrangeas in a cottage yard that has a theme of “blues and pinks so that they are more integrated into the setting.”
Beauty in a vase
Hydrangeas make for substantial floral arrangements, said interior designer Ann Heath, owner of Birmingham-based.
Outdoors, Heath prefers the snowball-type white Annabelles. “They don't conflict with other vegetation — they blend or stand alone. Also, they last a long time and I even love the dried ones left without the leaves.”
Bloomfield Hills resident and owner of interior design and event-planning firm Cities and Spaces Afaf Batayneh said many of the hydrangea blooms growing at her home don’t stay on the plant for long, as Batayneh, an expert event planner, often cuts them for vases.
“I love the fact that just a few of them will make a nice flower arrangement,” she noted. “Sometimes, one is enough for a short vase, but it is nicer to have a few small vases gathered or in one big vase.” She also appreciates that the blooms stay on the bushes come fall and dry naturally. “I can use them fresh or preserve them and they still look nice,” Batayneh said.
Beyond hydrangeas' beauty and their versatility in floral arrangements, many fans simply enjoy them for their nostalgic attributes, as they often evoke the gardens of yesteryear.
“Along with lilacs, mock orange and old-fashioned roses, hydrangeas are the flowers of my childhood,” said Mary Schwark, who has been the chairwoman of the annual Troy Garden Walk for the past few years. The homes on this year’s recent walk featured many hydrangeas. “They inspire wonderful visual memories,” said Schwark, who in her own Birmingham garden likes to grow the Annabelle cultivar. “For many years I knew them only as snowballs,” she said.
A shade lover, the Annabelle is dependable, Schwark said. “You have no worries about bud freeze and they sport simple but lush foliage.” In general, hydrangeas want two things: moisture and shade. Some of the varieties are happy with a good dose of dappled sunlight or a morning sun exposure.
Like Batayneh, Schwark enjoys hydrangeas such as Annabelles throughout the year. “They’re attractive in the winter landscape,” Schwark said. “And their gorgeous, clipped blooms dry easily and beautifully and maintain their colors, whether picked white, green, tan or brown.”
Ann Duke of Royal Oak also adores hydrangeas though the fall, after they’re spent. She has four “giant” shrubs in her front yard that have all-white blooms.
“They have such a clean, stylized look,” said Duke, a sales and marketing specialist. “They’re so graphic in nature and they offer a bonus — they stay in bloom for most of the summer. I even like the way they look in the fall, once they've dried out.”
Artist Aimee Began, who owns Lusso Artistry, just recently moved to Royal Oak. “I will certainly grow hydrangeas in our new yard,” she said. “They’re so fascinating to me. When I see them in someone’s yard, it’s like balls of color and nothing else really looks like that. They add boldness to any landscape.”
Head turners indeed. As gardener Mary Schwark noted, hydrangeas are heavenly.
“Have you ever seen a swooping line of Annabelles in bloom that lean gently on a parallel row of boxwoods?” Schwark asked. “Lovely!”
Share your hydrangea photos
Are you proud of your hydrangeas or have a favorite patch of the blooms in your neighborhood? Take a picture or two and share them in this photo gallery. Just click on "Add your photos & videos" under the photos already there.