For those of us whose gardens are beset with deer and rabbits, the best asset of common hydrangeas
(H.macrophylla) is not their late summer show of pink, blue or white flowers, nor even their ability to fade gracefully through jewel-like shades of green and mauve. They contain cyanides, leading grazing animals to leave them well alone.
Easy and rewarding, hydrangeas are back in fashion. Double pink and white-flowered H.m ‘Miss Saori’ won RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year in 2014 and white, lacecap H.Runaway Bride Snow White in 2018. I’ve always liked dark-stemmed H. ‘Preziosa’ whose heads of white flowers turn a variety of shades according to age and soil type. Hydrangeas grow well on most soils but pink-flowered varieties veer towards blue on acidic ones and blues towards pink on chalk. Gardeners will insist that burying rusty nails near the roots will help blues keep their colour but iron oxide is insoluble. The aluminium from an acidic soil is what they need and products containing aluminium sulphate do help. Many gardens in the south west offer ideal homes for hydrangeas, not least Trebah near Falmouth where a moist, sheltered two acre valley is filled with them, originally planted in the 1950s. Faial in the Azores is known as ‘Blue Island’ on account of hydrangeas introduced there in the 17th century.
Notable among the 80 or so species is H.aspera Villosa Group, large, soft-leaved shrubs with heads of rose-purple and white flowers. The oak-leaved hydrangea (H.quercifolia) provides colourful autumn tints, H.paniculata blooms late, in cone-shaped heads and H.arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is tolerant of drier soils. The climbing sorts are useful, usually represented by deciduous H.anomala subsp.petiolaris. On a recent visit to Mount Stewart near Belfast the rounded pale green buds of evergreen Chilean H.serratifolia decorated the shadier walls of the house. They open to heads of white fertile flowers 15cm (6in) across.
Most hydrangeas are of woodland origin and thrive best in humus-rich, moisture-retentive yet well-drained soil in partial shade. Yet they will grow in full sun as long as there is adequate moisture available. H.macrophylla cultivars grow happily in containers too, best sited in a cool, shaded location perhaps on the north side of a house.
I once attended a moth viewing, during which we gathered at dusk around a specially designed moth trap. Novices like me oohed and aahed as large, impressive moths settled, while a second group stood back somewhat indulgently until one spotted a moth so small it was hardly visible. They pounced on it, had it in a jar and clustered around excitedly. It would seem the most fascinating moths shrink to micro-size in proportion to one’s growing interest and expertise. Could this be the same with pelargoniums, the tender, mostly South African relatives of hardy geraniums?
One starts by admiring the double regals and handsome zonal bedding types, before passing through a stage of collecting daintier-flowered Angels, Stellars and Uniques and then hits on the small-flowered species. Should you share my fascination for plants little changed from those first discovered by plant hunters like Francis Masson (and have room in a greenhouse or sunny windowsill), Fibrex Nursery (01789 720788) or Woottens of Wenhaston (01502 478258) are good contacts. Plants need frost free winters, sun, and free draining compost as some are almost succulent and grow from woody bases.
Among the most romantic of roses, ramblers were the darlings of the Edwardian period. Edward VII was only monarch from 1901 to 1910 but we tend to view the whole turn of the century period as Edwardian, especially when it comes to garden design. There was a reaction against Victorian formality and a movement towards creating a rural idyll. House design spilled into the garden with terraces, walls, circular steps, rills and pergolas of natural stone encircling and supporting wilder, more naturalistic planting.