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Haughty Hydrangea

By Audrey Stallsmith

hydrangea macrophylla

Dragoons, I tell you the white hydrangeas turn rust and go soon.

--Carl Sandburg

According to British folklore, having a hydrangea too close to her home can doom a single woman to remain unwed.  So maybe the big "snowball bush" growing against the east wall here explains my own spinsterhood!

At least, this old superstition explains why the hydrangea stands for "frigidity" and "heartlessness" in the Language of Flowers.  Perhaps the "snow" in its common name is responsible for the chill ascribed to it! 

The hydrangea stands for "boastfulness" also, but that is probably due to the "inflated" size of its flowerheads--and, often, of the bush as well.  Because of its bulk, the plant requires lots of water.  It's name, in fact, derives from the Greek hudor ("water") and aggos ("jug").  It also needs partial shade--if only to help keep the soil damp.

Most hydrangeas originated either in Asia or the Americas.  The most popular is probably the macrophylla ("big-leafed") type that came from China.  Its colors can change due to the ph level of the soil, which is probably why folklore recommends that a rusty nail or two be driven into its roots.   

Acidic (or iron-rich) soil causes the plant to draw up more aluminum, which inclines the flowers towards a blue shade.  A limey soil, on the other hand, will produce pink blooms instead.

I once purchased a couple very attractive potted hydrangeas that were marked down after Easter--one of which boasted huge blue flowers and the other double pink ones.  After planting them outside, I learned the hard way that not all hydrangeas are as hardy as our snowball bush.  The pink one didn't last long.  And, though the blue one actually survived and has grown, it has never flowered again. Apparently the buds freeze during our Pennsylvania winters. 

I probably should have left the hydrangeas in their pots, as they were popular houseplants during the Victorian era. But they are currently more in vogue as landscape shrubs--especially after the development of types like Endless Summer, which can rebloom.  The American quercifolia ("oak-leafed") variety has gained its share of admirers too.

Native Americans and settlers used to employ the wild type, hydrangea arborescens, as a medicinal herb to remove "gravel" from the bladder, to stimulate saliva, and as a diuretic, laxative or tonic.  It is also known as seven barks, due to the many different colors in its peeling skin.

The Japanese brew a sweet tea from serrata (the lacecap type), and some foolhardy types have even been known to smoke paniculata.  Keep in mind, however, that many hydrangeas are at least mildly toxic and contain small amounts of cyanide.  So they can be dangerous in high doses.

As Diana Well writes in 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, "The big pink or blue garden hydrangea is as common in America as blue-haired old ladies, and has the same feel of dyed unreality."  But just let somebody criticize those grandmothers and see what happens!  As Madonna discovered when she said, "I absolutely loathe hydrangeas," the reaction can be fast and furious.  In America, loathing that ubiquitous shrub might be considered somewhat similar to loathing baseball and apple pie.

Fortunately, there are scads of gorgeous new types to choose from these days, though I hold that our old-fashioned white is just as splendid as any of them.  Positively bridal, in fact! 

Hydrangea macrophylla image is from Icones Pictae Plantarum Rariorum Descriptionibus et Observationibus Illustratae by Auctore J.E. Smith, M.D., courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.