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Puppies. Chocolate. Sunsets. File them all under Things That Make Us Go Heart-Eyes—right along with hydrangeas.

By Teresa Woodard
April 07, 2021
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Hydrangea
Credit: Rett Peek

PLANT BREEDERS LOVE to tout a crazy statistic about hydrangeas: They're one of the most Googled shrubs in the world. And why not? Their cotton-candy blooms are impossibly romantic, easily outshining a dull yew or barberry.

That kind of popularity bodes well for gardeners. Ryan McEnaney of Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul explains: "Since hydrangeas are such hot plants, there's been so much work done in breeding and tweaking their qualities."

New varieties boast more intense colors and useful sizes, hardier buds, stronger stems, longer bloom times—they're just better, more reliable hydrangeas overall. "By the time a plant gets to a home garden," McEnaney says, "it's gonna be the best plant out there."

As if we needed another reason to crush on them.

All in the Family

Hydrangeas vary a lot, so read up before buying. They can be dwarf (perfect for containers or the fronts of borders) to hedge-size (soaring 6 feet or more). Bloom times range from mid-spring to fall. Colors vary from lime green to deep burgundy, and some specimens offer fall and winter interest.

SMOOTH HYDRANGEA

Invincibelle hydrangea
'Invincibelle Garnetta'
| Credit: Courtesy of Spring Meadows Nursery/Proven Winners ColorChoice

Hydrangea arborescens is hardy, easy to grow and early to flower. New versions offer basketball-size blooms, pink hues, dwarf forms and stronger stems. Try compact 'Invincibelle Garnetta' (pictured) or 'Incrediball' with giant white blooms.

Panicle Hydrangea

Panicle hydrangea
Panicle hydrangea
| Credit: Courtesy of Spring Meadows Nursery/Proven Winners Colorchoice

The signature cone-shape blooms of Hydrangea paniculata emerge white then age to pink and red. It grows best in full sun, and many are hardy to Zone 3. Newer breeds include longer-blooming 'Limelight Prime' (pictured) and color-changing 'Berry White'.

Bigleaf Hydrangea

hydrangea
BloomStruck Bigleaf Hydrangea
| Credit: Courtesy of Endless Summer Hydrangeas

Hydrangea macrophylla is the classic mophead. It's a bit fussier than the others, so read up on its light, soil and fertilizer preferences. Newer varieties like BloomStruck (pictured) can survive in Zone 4 if protected with mulch or leaves the first winter.

Oakleaf Hydrangea

hydrangea
'Jetstream'
| Credit: First Editions Plants

A native, Hydrangea quercifolia's striking foliage turns deep red in fall. Hardy only to Zone 5, this May to July bloomer tolerates more shade. In summer, 'Jetstream' (pictured) has dark green leaves and flowers that age from white to pink.

How to Prune

SMOOTH These hydrangeas bloom on new wood, so prune to spur new growth and flowers. Cut way back (6–8 inches from the ground) in late winter or early spring.

PANICLE Cut panicles back one-third to one-half in late winter—not to the ground like smooth hydrangeas.

BIGLEAF Give these a light "haircut" after they've leafed out (mid- to late spring) to remove any dead branches. They bloom on growth from current and previous years. Go easy, since too much pruning removes potential blooms.

OAKLEAF Oakleaf bloom on past growth, so you can skip pruning. Leave the dried blooms (they look pretty dusted in snow), then snip them off in spring.

Growing Tips

• Choose a well-drained spot with sun—check the tag for how much. (Panicles thrive in full sun, for example, while mopheads like afternoon shade.)

• Amend clay soil with compost.

• Water consistently, especially new plants, since the shallow roots can dry out quickly.

• Fertilize in spring with a slow-release shrub fertilizer; avoid products high in nitrogen or you will end up with more leaves than flowers. Give reblooming varieties a second dose in July.

Did You Know?

The name hydrangea comes from the Greek words for water (hydor, because the plant can be picky about consistent moisture) and water vessel (angeion, a reference to the cup shape of its seed capsule). They like to stay hydrated—sorry, couldn't resist—but don't tolerate wet feet, so aim for moist, not soggy soil.