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.

9 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:

    https://chesapeake.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/chesapeake_ext_vt_edu/files/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. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s