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Blue Billow lacecap hydrangea stars in late May, early June

Blue Billow lacecap hydrangea stars in late May, early June

Posted: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 9:19 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

In a mostly greenish pause at the turn of May into June, one plant stood out in our garden with (what can you say?) pizzazz.
Blue Billow hydrangea is one of the lacecaps, that is, with blooms that have sterile petals surrounding the fertile fuzzy flowers in the center of the bloom, in the manner of a woman’s lacecap.
Well, heck, who knows any more what a lacecap is? In former days there was quite a period when women wore stylish hats (caps) with a circular row of lace around the edge of the headgear. The bloom of a lacecap hydrangea mimics that.
There are numerous varieties of lacecap hydrangeas, but they aren’t seen in this area nearly so much as the mopheads (i.e. Nikko Blue), which is a shame, indeed, since the lacecaps (some of them anyway) present a more dainty appearance on a hardier (sometimes) plant.
Those parenthetical caveats are not to be ignored. Get the wrong lacecap and it won’t be any more dependable than Nikko Blue, which has its flowers frozen out of business about half the years.
Most of the soft wooded hydrangeas sold are of the species Hydrangea macrophylla or bigleaf hydrangea. These include Nikko. They continue stem elongation well into fall, and the resulting soft wood is not winter hardy. Since buds for the following spring are produced on new wood, often as not a late fall or late spring freeze does in the tender buds. Macrophyllas include both mopheads and lacecaps.
Blue Billow, on the other hand, is one of the many varieties of another hydrangea species, Hydrangea serrata, of Japanese origin. These have become widely known in this country mostly during the past 20 years or so. They are far more resistant to frost than the bigleafs. In all the years we have enjoyed Blue Billow I can only recall one season when the blooms were maimed by an extraordinary late freeze.
My several bushes of Blue Billow all emanated, via root division, from a single tiny plant I had some 20 years ago by mail order from Winterthur Gardens in Delaware. Soft wooded hydrangeas are notoriously easy to divide during their dormant season.
Now our plantation of them consists of a couple of beds 10 feet or more across on down to single plants some three or four feet across.
The blue of these is almost fluorescent, literally glowing in the shade, where most of ours are sited, though they will take full sun if well watered. All hydrangeas are thirsty plants. The larger sterile petals on the perimeter are sky blue, while the fertile little flowers in the center are more toward blue-purple. There are precious few true blue flowers of any kind and even fewer borne on shrubs, thus the value of Blue Billow.
There are now on the market (if you can find them) many other serratas, nearly all more winter hardy than any macrophyllas. Some of them have reddish flowers even in acid soil, while most are blue. A few of the serratas are mopheads, but most are lacecaps.
Hydrangeas generally are of ridiculously easy culture, only demanding reasonable soil and plenty of water during droughts.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 6.23.09


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