To celebrate the birth of each of his two daughters, my father brought flowers to my mother at the hospital. He chose potted hydrangeas each time. I never asked him why, but my father was a practical man. A bouquet of roses could have seemed too ephemeral.
Each time, the hydrangea was planted in our grandmother’s tiny garden on the east side of Buffalo, N.Y. Neither of my parents gardened, and after we moved to the suburbs, Dad was all about lawn and nothing but lawn.
The hydrangeas were macrophyllas, with huge, billowy blossoms of pink and blue. My sister, Audrey, and I called them “Sno Balls,” after the cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with pink marshmallow frosting and coconut flakes. There was a Hostess bakery in the neighborhood, and on some days, the air smelled just like Twinkies.
My grandmother’s home on Guilford Street was torn down decades ago, and her garden is long gone, but I still mourn for those lost hydrangeas.
When my son Robbie died in 2012, dearest friends gave me a magnificent Kousa Dogwood “Venus” as a memorial. What could I do except plant three “Peace” macrophylla hydrangeas below its branches?
Hydrangeas take many forms. H. arborescens, or the smooth leaf hydrangea, is a North American native hardy down to Zone 3. Blooming on new wood, you can cut this species to the ground in the spring and it will still grow quickly enough to bloom reliably in June. I’ve made a hedge of the iconic H. arborescens “Annabelle,” which yielded armloads of blossoms for my youngest son William’s wedding in August 2013. All those hydrangeas were propagated from a single stem I took years before from an “Annabelle” growing in William’s grandmother’s garden in Spokane. Cassy, his bride, carried the flowers in her bouquet.
Grandma Barany got her “Annabelle” start from Mrs. Warf, a beloved babysitter to her five children in the 1950s. Those were the days when treasured plants were freely shared. Starts were wrapped simply in newspaper and passed over fences, or presented as a rooted cutting in a jelly jar full of water.
Audrey loved hydrangeas just as much as I did. After her death, but before I sold her house on Barge Street here in Yakima, I made a home for her favorite “Limelight” hydrangeas, paniculata types, in my garden. They’re blooming now.
Every garden has heirlooms of its own. I’m starting plants of “Peace,” “Annabelle” and “Limelight” for William and my daughter Alison, who have gardens of their own now. It’s easy; no horticulture degree is required. Take a small piece of your favorite hydrangea, start a new plant, and pass it on.
University of Illinois Extension tells us how:
- In late spring or early summer, take a cutting about 5-6 inches long, preferably from a branch that did not flower this year.
- Remove the lower leaves of the bottom two leaf nodes. The leaf node is where a leaf comes out of the branch. Most roots will form at that point.
- Cut the remaining largest leaves down to about half their size
- Dip cuttings in rooting hormone and insert into damp vermiculite or a sterile potting soil.
- Water well and allow the pot to drain. Soil should be moist but not soggy. Cover the cuttings and pot with a plastic bag, creating a mini-greenhouse. Try to keep the plastic from touching leaves by adding stakes, if necessary.
- Place cuttings in a bright shady area. NEVER PLACE NEW CUTTINGS IN THE SUN. They will cook in the plastic.
Do not water again until top of soil begins to feel dry. Overwatering will cause cuttings to rot. Expect cuttings to begin to form roots in two to three weeks. If a tug on the cutting resists the pull, it is rooting.
You can use another method called ground layering:
1. Select one or more branches close to the ground. Remove the leaves for about 5-6 inches at the spot where the branch will touch the ground when you gently bend it down.
2. Scrape a little of the bark off the underside of the branch in this area. Make sure at least one leaf node will be under the soil. Do not cut the branch off the mother plant.
3. Dig a little trench about 2 inches deep and lower the branch into it, then cover generously with soil. Put a brick or stone on the buried area to keep it under the soil. Keep it moist.
4. When roots form, cut the branch from the mother plant and pot it up or plant it in the garden.