Hydrangeas suffer from the same image problem as rhododendrons: they are usually in the wrong place. A pot near the house requires ericaceous soil, an acid mulch, aluminum sulphate. They look constrained, too neat.
Hydrangeas take on a magnificence when they have freedom, grown in a place that they actually like. Along the narrow lanes of Cornwall, at the southwest tip of England, hydrangeas are the most otherworldly of plants. In shades of electric blue or a peculiar purple or greenish white, they emerge from the shade of lichen-covered holm oaks, glowing against slate walls.
Says Alasdair Moore of the Duchy Nursery in Lostwithiel: “In Cornwall, hydrangeas have made themselves at home, often looking particularly wild with their drooping stems laden with flower.”
Here are seven garden design ideas for wild hydrangeas:
Photography by Kendra Wilson.
Blanket a Slope
Above: At Trematon Castle at the edge of Cornwall, the croquet lawn by the house falls away into a jungle of greenery. Hydrangeas grow up the slope, unsupported, among roses and herbs. In a light rain, their mopheads carry the weight.
Cornish “mizzle,” the misty moisture which characterizes the coastal weather when it is not radiantly sunny, enhances the effect.
Grow a Jungle
Above: At Trematon, home of garden designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman, hydrangeas become jungle plants. Here, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is joined by the white umbels of Ammi majus, with spires of Echium pininana on the other side of the path.
Encroach on a Driveway
Above: Blue macrophylla hydrangeas growing along parts of the driveway at Botelet Farm, in southeast Cornwall.
Try as one might, it’s impossible not to think of the novels of Daphne du Maurier when traveling in Cornwall, especially after being lost for what seems like hours. It is the wildness of ordinary plants that bring the famous opening line of Rebecca to mind: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Above: Untroubled by bluing agents and soil acidity test kits, hydrangeas glint in the gloom, in the way that rhododendrons can, if they are allowed to.
“Many of the hydrangeas in Cornwall have a genuine and precise sense of place,” says Alasdair Moore. “Their shades of blue are dependent on the soil they find themselves in, acidity allowing them to take up aluminum which gives them the blueness.”
Keep Them Moist
Above: Hydrangea paniculata ‘Sundae Fraise’ at the Duchy Nursery in Lostwithiel, Cornwall. Paniculata and arborescens types are dependent not on acidity but moisture: they must never dry out.
Mix and Match
Above: At Botelet Farm again (which has wonderful cottages to rent as well as a farmhouse bed and breakfast), purple lacecaps grow among the blue mopheads. Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Blue Wave’ is a similar variety to this and can be found at the Duchy Nursery. It is either blue or purple depending on the soil.
Design for Twilight
Above: Back to hyper-reality. “I drove home from an evening cricket match last night, down an avenue of big, blue macrophylla hydrangeas,” recalls our friend Alasdair. “Illuminated by my headlights against the night, they looked astounding. It felt as though I was in a dream…” We say: Dream on.
For more design ideas to elevate hydrangeas from cliché to chic, see:
- Expert Advice: The 10 Best Hydrangeas to Grow.
- Bouquet of the Week: Hydrangeas Gone Wild.
- Field Guide: Hydrangea.
Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for hydrangea with our Hydrangea: A Field Guide.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.