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Ask the Expert: An Interview with the Founder of the Hydrangea Festival of Cape Cod

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Ask the Expert: An Interview with the Founder of the Hydrangea Festival of Cape Cod

July 20, 2022

If you’re visiting Cape Cod in July, you can expect beaches that stretch for miles, endless ice cream, mini golf in every town, and hydrangeas—lots and lots of hydrangeas. It’s the unofficial Cape Cod flower and it’s everywhere. You can find the flowers in traditional blue, but also in red, pink, purple, white, and green, in front gardens, commercial areas, and historical properties throughout the Cape.

Hydrangeas are so iconic to the area that there is an annual festival to celebrate the blooms: the Hydrangea Festival of Cape Cod. The event runs for 10 days during the month of July (it just wrapped up this past weekend) and spans the island, from Cape Cod Channel to Provincetown. There is an entrance fee of $5 and proceeds are donated to local nonprofits.

C.L. Fornari founded the event in 2015. We spoke to her recently about both the festival and the beloved plant that inspired it.

Photography by Joy Yagid.

The Cape’s favorite flower, the hydrangea.
Above: The Cape’s favorite flower, the hydrangea.

Q: Why did you start the hydrangea festival?

A: I was inspired by Garden Walk Buffalo. I found out about this event at a GardenComm meeting, and then visited many of those gardens when GardenComm held their annual meeting in Buffalo one year. I saw how this event made gardening “contagious” in Buffalo, NY; it was good for horticulture and for local businesses.

A laceleaf cultivar with companion plantings.
Above: A laceleaf cultivar with companion plantings.

Since the hydrangea is Cape Cod’s signature flower, and a plant that many people want to grow, I knew that if we did something similar, it should be organized under the umbrella of that shrub. But I also wanted to be sure that area non-profits could benefit from the event. So I came up with the idea to have gardens open for local nonprofits, and the entry fee to each garden go directly to the organization that the garden owner was partnering with. The nonprofits collect the $5 entry fee and staff the garden. Some have artists painting in the gardens and others sell plants, crafts or hydrangea-related items to raise more funds. In 2021, $77,000.00 was raised for the 21 nonprofits participating.

A view of the hydrangea garden at Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich MA.
Above: A view of the hydrangea garden at Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich MA.

Q: Why does the Cape love hydrangeas and why do hydrangeas love the Cape?

A: [Cape Codders] love hydrangeas because they are big, and many of them are blue. Not many shrubs have true-blue flowers, and these are also very long lasting. They do well here because of our maritime climate…we are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Oakleaf Hydrangea.
Above: Oakleaf Hydrangea.

Q: What bit of advice would you give to a beginner or someone new to hydrangeas? Or what’s the most common problem?

A: That’s hard to answer because there are four species of hydrangea that are commonly planted, and they vary widely in how they are grown and what problems they have or don’t have. So I’ll answer about the blue (blue/pink depending on soil pH), not the quercifolius, paniculatas or arborescens.

That amazing blue!
Above: That amazing blue!

To grow the macrophylla and serrata species well (commonly called mop heads and lacecaps), you need good drainage, cooler summers, and warmer winters. If your winter temperatures go much below 5 degrees F, the flower buds on these plants will get zapped and you won’t have flowers the following year. Even the varieties that produce flowers on new growth only make a few flowers later in the season…the majority of blooms on all of these plants are from buds that were formed the August before.

That’s the basis of most common problems for these plants. People need to understand that they can never try and make them shorter, or “neaten up the sticks” either in the fall or spring, because they will be cutting off those flower buds. Additionally, these plants replace their height in one season, so any attempt to shorten them results in fewer flowers but plants that are just as tall the following summer.  If you live where it gets much below 10 degrees for any length of time in the winter, grow these plants in pots and pull them into an attached garage in October. You can water them if the soil gets dry through the winter, and pull them out again in May the following year to enjoy their flowers.

Tiny Tuff stuff cultivar.
Above: Tiny Tuff stuff cultivar.

Q: Of all the various types and cultivars, which is your favorite?

A: In terms of the paniculata varieties, I love Bobo, Zinfin Doll, Firelight, Pinky Winky, and Fire Light Tidbit. For the smooth hydrangeas, those in the arborescens species, I love Wee White, Mini Mauvette, Grandiflora, and Invincibelle Spirit II.  My favorite mophead is the hard to find ‘Mathilda Gutges.’ Favorite lacecaps include Tuff Stuff, Twist n’ Shout, Tuff Stuff Ah Ha, and Let’s Dance Starlight.

Unusual green cultivar, Froggie Bigleaf.
Above: Unusual green cultivar, Froggie Bigleaf.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: Not every plant can be grown in every region, and that’s okay. I have to travel to California or Florida to enjoy landscapes that contain citrus trees, and some people will need to come to Cape Cod to get their fix of blue flowering hydrangeas.

If you&#8\2\17;re on the Cape, be sure to visit the Heritage Museum and Gardens, in Sandwich MA, where the North American Hydrangea Test Garden is located. The gardens boast \155 different varieties of hydrangeas including not yet released cultivars.
Above: If you’re on the Cape, be sure to visit the Heritage Museum and Gardens, in Sandwich MA, where the North American Hydrangea Test Garden is located. The gardens boast 155 different varieties of hydrangeas including not yet released cultivars.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: Not every plant can be grown in every region, and that’s okay. I have to travel to California or Florida to enjoy landscapes that contain citrus trees, and some people will need to come to Cape Cod to get their fix of blue flowering hydrangeas.

For more on hydrangeas, see:

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