The Great Hydrangea Experiment

I long for hydrangea days.

As much as I love living and gardening in South Florida, I can’t help but deeply miss the hydrangeas in my New York garden. I loved photographing them from their first green buds in spring to the fullness of color during their bloom time to the their faded glory in fall to winter’s dried-brown clusters.

They’re also very easy to propagate from cuttings.

I can honestly say that hydrangeas are a big reason I’m thankful I have this blog, so that I have a record of those photos, those plants. They’re also why I decided to put together my book, Seeing Green: Life Learned In The Potting Shed, so that I have a formal scrapbook of writings and photos, many of which are of hydrangeas.

Apparently, though, I’m not the only one with hydrangea envy. Nurseries down here are filled with them in the weeks leading up to Easter and finishing shortly after Mothers’ Day. When I worked in the gardening department of a local box store, I was in heaven when the potted hydrangeas arrived, all of them in full bloom. Shoppers would stock up on them, but they always had a question for me: Do hydrangeas grow in South Florida?

I was as honest as I could be. “I tend to think of them as unicorns,” I’d explain. “Everyone knows someone who’s seen one growing somewhere, but no one has actually ever seen one for themselves. I think the best way to grow them is as an annual, in a shady spot, and hope for the best.”

My feeling was that hydrangeas in South Florida were as likely to grow as mandevilla or croton would be able to survive the first frost up north. In other words, plants marketed to separate gardeners from their money.

The truth, though, was that I really didn’t know — and so, I thought, I should know. Shortly before permanently leaving my box store job in  May 2018, I purchased a potted hydrangea — with one last-remaining and quite pitiful flower cluster — from the clearance rack for $5, and The Great Hydrangea Experiment was born.

Once home, I repotted it into a larger pot with some good soil and removed the dead flower heads. My plan was to keep it well watered and out of the direct Florida sun and wait and watch.

Throughout that summer and fall, leaves burned and curled and fell off. Could filtered Florida sun even be too strong for the plant? Had the grower forced it into bloom and this “death” was merely the hydrangea regrouping and going through its natural cycle?

Still, I carried on — literally — as I carried the pot around the yard, from morning sun locations to afternoon shaded locations. In time, leaf buds appeared and I was rewarded with a fresh flush of green leaves for winter 2018.

As much as I anticipated flower buds, checking each day for them, there weren’t any. Did the plant need some winter cold so it could be properly dormant? I had already done that with hyacinth bulbs by storing them in the refrigerator, but I didn’t think the refrigerator could handle a potted hydrangea. Oh, and I really didn’t think Joe would go for the idea, either.

I was at a crossroads. Was The Great Hydrangea Experiment a failure? Did it prove that although hydrangeas can grow in South Florida, they couldn’t flower, that they truly were the unicorns of subtropical gardens? Should I toss out the plant or should I be content that this leafy hydrangea is just that — a leafy hydrangea?

All of my answers appeared on October 12, 2019 — a year and a half from my initial purchase.

A flower! One very small flower head, but, nevertheless, an actual hydrangea flower head!

My Great Hydrangea Experiment proved a few things. First, although I would have been happy with a leafy hydrangea, there’s nothing like the joy found in a hydrangea flower. I love watching the subtle changes, as the color deepens — and I’m afraid I can’t stop photographing it, just like I did with my NY hydrangeas.

It also proved that hydrangeas could, with lots of care, grow and bloom in South Florida — and I now have the pictures to prove it.

18 thoughts on “The Great Hydrangea Experiment

  1. I think many garden centers here in Florida target unwitting northern transplants with plants they know will likely fail but can sell anyway. I have seen garden centers here selling hostas, which absolutely must have a dormant period to survive. I can’t fathom using hostas as an annual, but there you have it.

    There are a lot of different kinds of hydrangeas, including some that are native to Florida. They thrive in wildly different climates, such that some form blooms on new growth and some on old growth.

    Here’s a guide:

    Click to access pruning-hydrangeas.pdf

    • Hi Saucy Sand Piper. That might be part of the garden center game. When I lived in New York, the big named garden centers sold croton in September and October so people could decorate their front doors with the fall-colored leaves. First frost, that’s $25 down the tubes. Thanks for the information and your link. Be well!

  2. I am also an admirer of hydrangea and loved reading your story and how you persisted. I hope you can have many hydrangea blooms to photograph. I have heard of Oak leaf Hydrangea being grown in Florida and if you have found an area with enough shade (as you have) you can get the mop heads to work. Congrats on your achievement and enjoy those lovely blooms!

    • Hi Lee. Oak Leaf . . . I’ll have to look into that. I honestly have never seen one in a nursery, but it might be worth doing some experimenting. I’ve tried some tropical substitutes, such as Ixora — it’s just not the same, though. Be well!

  3. i’m kind of lost here. What is it about your climate and conditions that makes it more difficult to see hydrangeas flourish? I really thought you’d have humidity, something we in SoCal just don’t experience, that might encourage growth and flourishing. I took out two very mature hydrangeas a couple of years ago when the drought made it just impossible to maintain them, but I missed them so much I’ve brought some back. Do you think the difference is that in California we have very hot daytime temperatures but we dramatically cool off at night? I am really curious. But I’m glad your experiment at least gave you a glimmer of hope that perhaps there’s still an opportunity to cultivate your treasured hydrangeas. 🙂

    • Hey there, Debra. I looked on a cold hardiness map of the USA. Southern California looks to be mostly zone 8a and 8b, with Los Angeles being closer to an 11 — which I suppose is the result of a urban heat island. My zone in South Florida is 10b — and with climate change, we’re closing in on 11. That kind of heat, combined with humidity, makes growing hydrangeas challenging for the home gardener. It takes a lot of care — no different really that when I lived in NY and dug and stored my tropicals to protect them from winter. I also think your cooler evening temperatures help hydrangeas. In Florida, especially during the summer, nights can be just slightly warmer than daytime temperatures — and incredibly humid. I’m glad my little experiment worked. It will be interesting to see how this little plant keeps on going. 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Great Hydrangea Experiment — Nitty Gritty Dirt Man | Old School Garden

  5. Hi.
    So, i just found and read this story. A little late as it’s 2021. I’m wondering how the hydrangea is doing? And do you recommend one for another zone 10b gardener?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Ana. I’m glad you found it, and I had to chuckle when I read it. My little hydrangea is holding on. There is new leaf growth, and I keep watering it, but I’m not sure if it’s going to flower. Right now, because of the “cooler” late winter/early spring temperature, I have it in a sunnier location. Soon, though, it’s only going to get hotter and I’ll move its pot to a shadier location. If you’re up for an experiment, then it’s worth it — as long as you don’t become emotionally attached to it. I would also recommend to grow it in pot so you can better control its environment. In the meantime, I’m looking for a plant that can replace hydrangeas in my heart. The closest I’ve come to is chenille plant — the leaves resemble those on hydrangeas, it can handle a pruning, and it always comes back stronger. Good luck — and thanks for visiting.

  6. You’ve given me a little hope. I moved to Southeast Florida from South Carolina and miss my hydrangeas terribly. I’m not a big fan of the topical look, so landscaping our home has been a struggle for me. I’m determined to see if I can get a hydrangea hedge to grow in front of our home. We are fortunate enough to have two extremely large oak trees which provide a good amount of shade to the yard. My own experiment started a month ago, I haven’t planted them in the grown yet, my 5 guinea pig hydrangeas are currently planted in large fabric pots in front of the hedge they will hopefully be replacing. I’m not moving them throughout the day, since I want to see if they will grow in this specific spot. They get maybe an hour or so of sun but mostly filtered shade. I might be over watering them, but I water them most mornings and so far they have grown. Two of the plants arrived with no blooms but both currently have buds or the precursor to buds for hydrangeas. I’m hoping our home may have the perfect amount of shade to get them to grow here. Fingers Crossed!

    • Hi Georgia. I’m so glad you found me and that you’re taking on this ambitious experiment. Please, keep me posted. I find that hydrangeas can benefit from a period of cold for optimal blooms. That being said, I have mine in a pot and I move t around. Soon, it will be in a shadier spot, out of Florida’s hot sun. In addition, I have a few plants which have satisfied my hydrangea longing. The first is chenille plant. It always seems to be flowering (long red tails) and can handle a pruning. It’s also easy to propagate from cuttings. The other is the dwarf variety of red powderpuff. Technically, it’s a small tree — but the flowers are red mimosa-like flowers and the blossoms look like raspberries. The seeds are also super easy to propagate. Recently, I saw a photo of a row of them trimmed to be a small hedge — and I’m a little smitten with that idea. Also, I’ve seen bougainvillea trimmed into a hedge (but they are thorny) and Ixora is a good option also. Have fun with it.

  7. My beautiful hydraenga is a year old and has not flowered again. My son bought it for me as a gift and it was gorgeous so now I have this green plant. Should I put it in the ground in the shade

    • Hello Nina… Many times, when hydrangeas are sold in stores, they are very often grown indoors and “tricked” into peak blooming for when they are sold in time for certain holidays, such as Easter and Mother’s Day. It might take a growing season for the plant to acclimate to its new growing environment. That being said, my potted hydrangea only flowered once after I brought it home. It’s been green ever since — and with each year, it seems to struggle. That might have to do with the level and heat and humidity I get in South Florida, or it might be time to get a larger pot or try the ground in a shadier location. If you do decide to try the ground, I would amend your soil with some organic matter. I may try the same — keep me posted. I’m not sure of your zone, but anything above about zone 9 can be challenging for them and us.

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