Sunny June, the month most closely associated with the garden’s sunbathing divas and just as our English roses are budding, not far behind them are those plants that prefer quite different conditions. They are of course the hydrangeas, (from the Greek water vessel or ‘hydria’ which seemingly resembles the seed pods). Whatever the derived association, hydrangeas are renowned water guzzlers and abide in semi- shade. (And this latter part of June has provided such conditions!)
Plant hunted from China and Japan in the 17th century, their needs are well met there for June-July is the rainy season
“Many Japanese consider Ajisai (紫陽花, or hydrangea) to be the quintessential flower of this season, as they look just right when wet, and enshrouded in mist” Tsukublog
Since the Japanese name derives from ‘a gathering of blues’, the native soils must be acidic as well as rich in aluminium ions, the magic combination that turns most of the common varieties of pink/red hydrangeas to the blue spectrum. Whereas in my previous London garden of alkaline soil, all the H. macrophyllas, including the tiny florets of ‘White Wave’, were pinkalicious!
Since I had previously gardened in shade, hydrangeas were an obvious plant choice, although the London soil was rather too well-drained and they quite often gasped in summer. However, the wet/dryish care they received is probably better than constant superficial watering as it encouraged the roots to reach further down, which is beneficial to these large, top-heavy shrubs.
I brought two cuttings with me from that garden in 2019 and both have flourished. The H. macrophylla I’d first picked up from a roadside plant sale as a cutting which the gardener had labelled ‘apple blossom‘ though no such name officially exists. It was no bigger then than this third generation one (striving to flower now despite its diminutive size) but the large leaf is a clue to its eventual size!
The other cutting that I brought is actually a faux hydrangea – Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight‘, a climbing liana from the woodlands of Japan with bracts and infertile flowers similar to a lacecap hydrangea. It is a slow grower initially, but will eventually reach over 30 feet. For now it is a potted juvenile and flowering for the first time.
My current favourite hydrangea is a bi-coloured serrata – ‘Kiyosumi‘. More compact, hardier and with remarkable leaf colour in both Spring and Autumn. Serratas inhabit the mountain regions of Japan, and I’d like to collect more for my next garden in the Derbyshire heights. These hydrangeas have the added benefit of being edible as the leaves make a sweet tea called ama-cha, 甘茶.
I am forever grateful to the plant hunters who brought us these wonderful plants, and their history is entwined with romance too.
“For Westerners, hydrangea can be seen as a symbol of silent devotion, as its scientific name, otaksa, appears to refer to Otaki-San, a woman from Nagasaki’s pleasure quarter, who was the mistress of the German naturalist P.F. von Siebold, who went on to introduce ajisai to Europe“. Tsukublog