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Hydrangea Days

Pink, green, purple, white, red. Dwarf, tree, shrub, and climbing. Besides the classic blue beauties, there’s a hydrangea out there for every landscape.

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s.

Photo by Joesph Lau Photography

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s. Soon you could find hydrangeas on street corners in big cities—there were reports that thieves were sneaking into the backyards of summer homes on the Cape and Islands, stripping shrubs bare, and carting off hydrangeas to sell for outrageous prices in Boston and Manhattan.

Of course, hydrangeas have not always been so well loved. In the 1960s, hydrangeas were considered staid, old-fashioned flowers: something your grandmother loved, certainly not cool enough for the Swinging Sixties.

Cape homeowners then were yanking out the few varieties available in those days—big blue mopheads and stately white paniculatas—in favor of massed beach grasses and sophisticated, minimalist foliages from around the world.

Then, in the early 1980s, Stewart began to publish books like Entertaining (1982), which celebrated the virtues of old-fashioned garden flowers like poppies, peonies, daffodils, and hydrangeas. Many of these flowers grew in Stewart’s backyard gardens in Westport, Connecticut, the Fairfield County town where her empire first flourished.

I grew up in Westport and as a young reporter for the Westport News, Martha Stewart was one of my first interviews for a story on her just-established catering business. I went to her home and marveled over the country kitchen (later photographed extensively in Entertaining) and her gardens, which were beautiful even then.

We walked through her backyard plots, lush with perfect vegetables and old-fashioned flowers. I don’t remember any hydrangeas, but within a few years, everything Martha loved became the ultimate country-chic choice.

The truth is hydrangeas are very old-fashioned flowers, and while not native to Cape Cod or the Islands (just like that other local favorite, Rosa rugosa), hydrangeas have long thrived in our sandy soil and moist summer climate. Since Stewart’s resurrection of the flower, hydrangea varieties have proliferated like dandelions—also not native by the way—and today, there are thousands of varieties of hydrangeas.

There are dwarf hydrangeas in deep rose (“Pink Elf”), hydrangeas that almost glow in the dark (“Limelight” and “Annabelle”), and growers are even working to develop a yellow cultivar.

Of course, most people still love the classic blue hydrangeas best—what is a Cape or Islands garden without blue hydrangeas? But in today’s nurseries there are dozens of varieties of blue hydrangeas.

I could go on and on about hydrangeas, but this is a story about how to grow and prune hydrangeas, another subject of passionate discussion. Hydrangeas do present a few unique challenges in terms of care.

We have consulted with experts and I have relied on years of growing hydrangeas in our own backyard, from the billowing “Nikko Blues” by our back door to the shy “Annabelles” and “Limelights” tucked into shady beds.

And as for Martha Stewart—well, she has come pretty far since she told me how to dry herbs in her Westport kitchen. Of course, she has also given me a great story to tell about my first days writing about the joys of gardening.

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