At this time of the year the new catalogues are arriving at the garden centre and my fellow plant nerds and I are poring over the latest and greatest avalanche of new varieties of heucheras, echinaceas, hostas and hydrangeas. Man, it’s confusing! Why are there so many?
Take hydrangeas for example. When I first started in the garden centre business about one hundred years ago there were two types of hydrangeas. There was the blue mophead type, Hydrangea macrophylla, with the big blue round blooms and there were white hydrangeas; the round flowers were Hydrangea arborescens and the cone-shaped ones were Hydrangea paniculata.
Mopheads dominated the market because of the sheer size of their blooms; the others were boring and straggly. Big blue balls of flowers were omnipresent on every street in Richmond when I lived there. When I moved back to the Okanagan mopheads were few and far between; winters were too cold to allow for strong blooming and our strongly acidic soil produced flower colours that were unsatisfactorily somewhere on the blue to pink spectrum.
Two white cultivars dominated the market. ‘Annabelle’ was the standard in round blooms; ‘Grandiflora’ or ‘PG’ represented the cone-shaped constituency. You can still these old favourites in garden centres today but they’ve been joined by a host of new and improved cousins.
Hydrangea macrophylla has been revolutionized with the introduction of the ‘Endless Summer’ series, which blooms on both new and old wood and is rated hardy to -30 deg. C. No more dieback of blooming wood after a cold winter and a succession of blooms from early summer to late fall.
Having been inundated with big blue blobs of blooms during my time on the Lower Mainland I’m not much of a H. macrophylla fan. I love some of the new cultivars that are replacing ‘Annabelle’ and ‘PG.’ We have three Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ planted in front of a north-facing fence at the garden centre and every year at this time I marvel at the show they produce. Huge cone-shaped blooms emerge in lime-green shades in July, they turn ivory white before morphing into a beautiful dusky rose-pink, which is where they’re at in early October.
It’s not a plant for small spaces as they mature at about two metres tall and nearly as wide. Aside from the spectacular blooms its best attribute is the strength of the stems. The earlier cultivars had floppy stems that became even floppier as the blooms matured. If there was a heavy rain it was a real mess. For smaller gardens there is ‘Bobo,’ maturing at just one metre.
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ can look rather impressive in the right situation but it suffers from the same stem issues as its older cousins. Because of the size of the blooms it can be characterized as billowy; a polite way of saying that the stems get floppy as the flowers become larger.
The solution is to plant the newer cultivar ‘Incrediball.’ Blooms are up to 30 cm across but the stems are strong enough to support the weight, even after rainfall. And, because it blooms on new wood you can prune it quite hard in the spring.
I see a startling similarity to what is happening in NHL training camps right now. Veterans are being pushed by younger players, eager to earn their spot on the roster. Older cultivars are being phased out, new plants are grabbing the attention. Your garden is going to ‘get younger.’ Let’s hope there are no growing pains along the way.

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