Hydrangeas are the loveliest symbol of Cape Cod summers, the foundation of many a garden, with variations as plentiful as the long lists of flavors of ice cream at the local creameries. Some people may relate more to the sailboats or the beaches of the Cape, and that is totally understandable. However, people like me, who may love the beach and the grace of a sailboat bobbing along the horizon, experience the greatest lift in spirit when the Cape Cod hydrangeas display their prolific beauty in color and fullness, an absolute exhibition of their inner desire to thrive and share their love of life. So the hydrangea is the shared favorite of many a Cape Cod summer visitor and permanent resident alike.
However, not only does the hydrangea plant provide joy during the summer months beginning in early July but this common shrub also continues doing well into mid-November. In my garden I still am able to view a secret sense of blue or pink in some of those lingering blossoms that made it through several series of weather events that challenged the stamina of the greatest of oaks. The color and stability linger in some, though others are sticks of wood like branches sans even a single leaf. These remain a lingering ghost of their fullness and color, simply in costume for the Halloween season.
According to Wikipedia, there are more than 75 different species of hydrangea or hortensia, the “water vessel,” that are native to Asia and the Americas. The popular sellers at many nurseries are varieties of mophead, lacetop and oakleaf, with names like Endless Summer, Limelight, Annabelle and Panicle. Whether they are native hydrangeas, probably preferred by local insects, or those derived from Asian varieties, the color and depth that is added to the landscape is remarkable. Speaking of color, there are many tales of ways to determine color on your hydrangea blossoms by simple manipulation of the soil. The truth is, though I am no botanist, the color is determined by the acidity of the soil in a complex relationship with the presence of aluminum ions that may actually be toxic to the plant. The pH (stands for potential hydrogen...who knew!) of the earth in the flower bed is an indicator of likely color. With a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, expect purple. Add coffee grinds, eggshells or citrus peels, and you may achieve blue. The more alkaline the soil, the more likely it is that you will see pink. In any case, haven’t you seen a hydrangea shrub with multiple colors? It’s magic!
It’s now time to fondly remember the garden tours and the Hydrangea Festival of July. Outstanding! The bushes were then climbing over each other to shout out their abundance. Well-trained gardeners delight in framing their shrubs with neighbor plants that bring out the best in the hydrangeas. The visitor may snap photos to attempt to capture the magnificence presented or merely spend an extra minute or two inhaling with the eyes the presence of such finery. Wasn’t it tempting to remain longer than our entry fee allowed? Upon returning to your own garden, you imagine achieving a similar bounty and retreat to your gardening clothes, shovels and trowels in glove-covered hands to replicate a terrain loved and understood by its owner. The effort itself bestows a sense of fulfillment. My appreciation of my very own lacetops has grown, since my bramble of broad leaves and flattened blossoms remains in late autumn the blue-gray masterpiece it was in August. I must have chosen just the right spot with good drainage and early-morning sunshine as opposed to the heat of the late-afternoon summer sun.
However, my white mopheads are the gift that keeps on giving. When my daughter first moved to a two-family home in Jamaica Plain almost 20 years ago, she planted a couple of lovely white hydrangeas. Over the years they grew extremely well and became the highlight of the yard, only to be almost outdone by a climbing hydrangea that covered the entire side of her neighbor’s garage. The prolific shrubs offered pompoms that resembled fabulous bouquets protruding in every direction from strong wooden stems and broad lime-green leaves showcased beneath them. These hydrangeas are the gift that keep on giving because they extend their growth by producing shoots that can be dug up and transplanted to begin new bushes without negatively affecting the mother. So the shoots moved, as I did, from JP to Cataumet and later again to my daughter’s vacation home in Orleans. These moptops continue to thrive, spawning offspring that grace the entire span of the Cape from west to east. Those original city dwellers are now part of the essence of rural Cape Cod life.
Of course, everyone knows that the blooms can be dried successfully and used for wreaths and table decor, as is on display at many a holiday sale around this time of year. Some gardeners believe in trimming the blossoms before the winter months, while others wait until the spring. Generally, the hydrangeas do not need a great deal of care, in my experience. I have been busy pulling out oak leaves and branches carelessly deposited in the plant’s web by the heavy wind and rain we have witnessed lately. The tangle of hydrangea blossoms and branches seem to catch everything falling from above or nearby. This really is a small price to pay for the beauty beheld for months of hearty production. As they wane, these gifts of nature cause me to begin to imagine spring, though it’s not yet winter, when the woody branches will again show signs of greening. I say, “So long, sweet hydrangeas,” as though nature’s offering is like so many Cape Codders...just heading south for a short time. Like good friends, my hydrangeas will be missed as I peer out my windows at a different view of the yard. Like good friends, my memories and mind’s eye can conjure their importance in my life. And like good friends, I will celebrate their return with all my heart.
Ms. Morrone is a resident of Cataumet.