By Erica Ballard
Last summer, I planted nine wild hydrangea shrubs (Hydrangea arborescens) in a new native garden in front of my house. Situated in the back of the planting in a long row, the hydrangeas provide structure and continuity to a garden that is mostly forbs. When researching what to plant, I chose hydrangeas because I thought they would do well on the north side of my house; I anticipated the shrubs to be in the shade, even on the longest, hottest days of the year.
Consequently, I was surprised last June when I discovered that the shadow of my house was much shorter than I had anticipated, and the hydrangeas ended up being in full sun for most of the summer months. However, although frequently described as a shade-loving plant, the hydrangeas in my garden are thriving and nearly twice the size as when I first put them in the ground. (I do water the shrubs when the weather is very hot or when it has not rained recently.) When exploring the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri, I have also spotted healthy wild hydrangeas planted there in very sunny spots as well.
A common misconception for any hydrangea is where the flowers actually are located on the plant. Most people would identify the flowers as the white, three or four-petaled “flowers” usually located on the edge of the white bloom. In fact, these are sterile, white bracts that aren’t flowers at all. The fertile flowers are actually the tiny, white circles towards the interior of the inflorescence (flower arrangement). When planting a non-native, hydrangea cultivar, many of these plants have very little benefit to pollinators because the blooms are, in reality, sterile.
The last few weeks, the hydrangeas have really made my garden pop! With big, creamy-white clouds of blooms, they add interest and stand out well against the dark red brick of my home. Most importantly, they are constantly covered with pollinators. By the end of June, four giant bees were scrambling all over one clump of blossoms. There was a great deal of buzzing and fighting going on.
In early July, I was horrified to see what I thought was a terrible, white fungus growing all over the hydrangeas’ leaves. Upon closer examination, though, I realized that it was accumulations of fallen, spent flowers, in some places so thick that it looked like a dusting of snow. No wonder the bees are so in love with these shrubs!
Wild hydrangeas usually grow 4 to 5 feet tall with a spread of 4 to 6 feet. They are native to and hardy throughout the lower Midwest. Make sure to consider these amazing plants for your next native planting project. More information about wild hydrangeas can be found at Grow Native!’s Native Plant Database.
Erica Ballard is a curriculum developer, working for a parochial school in St. Louis, and an education consultant working on contract for the Missouri Prairie Foundation and its Grow Native! program.
Photos of wild hydrangea by Erica Ballard.