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.