Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Hydrangea macrophylla is the quintessential representation of Victorian gardens. At least, its association with the Victorian era, for me, is due to its vast popularity as an ornamental in San Francisco, a Victorian aficionado's mecca. Winding down Lombard Street is a favorite experience of tourists, a serpentine street filled with H. macrophylla, thanks to Peter Bercut, who became fed up with the street's appearance and planted the hydrangea mass, according to History Daily. I need to research its association further with the Victorian era and History Daily's claim, because if the blogpost is correct, Becut's mass planting occurred in the 1940s, far past the City's Victorian period.
More succinctly, I have heard from countless people over the years that hydrangeas are "grandma plants." A simple online search using keywords "grandma, hydrangea" generated countless posts of the association, often including remembrances and nostalgia. A favorite plant among florists, it is easy to envision hydrangea gifts being planted along the foundation of someone's home, right there with Easter lilies and, if willing, poinsettias. The flowers last a long, long time, and if properly dried, can last even longer for use in dried arrangements, wreaths, and pressed flowers. How do I know this? Ages ago, I worked for the now semi-defunct garden shop, Smith and Hawken, way before Target purchased the brand. In its heyday in Marin and Stanford Shopping Center (where I worked, crossing paths with the likes of Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart), hydrangeas were a mainstay along with maidenhair ferns. Plop a couple in a fancy cachepot and boom, a sale! Okay, enough walking down the memory lane; should we continue to plant grandma's flowers?
From a landscape architect's point of view, H. macrophylla is a sturdy shade loving shrub that is fairly low maintenance, providing its given a lot of water. I note shade loving, but under the right conditions, such as Lombard Street with its coastal influences, hydrangeas tolerate sun. Despite its traditional associations, well-positioned specimens can enhance a garden composition, particularly since there are a number of cultivars for various tastes: 'Pia,' for example is a dwarf for smaller color statements. Lacecaps, with their flat topped flower clusters, gives a modern vibe. While bubblegum pink can be overwhelming for some, white, purple, or blue offer further options. Variegated forms are also available, lending their brighter foliage to a shady location. Still not convinced? Consider some other hydrangeas in the genus, such as H. quercifolia with its brilliant fall color, H. anomala petiolaris, a prolific, clinging vine, or H. paniculata, large enough to be trained as a small tree.
West Valley College Campus Location: Hydrangea macrophylla
Administration (westerly planter)
Long: 122° 0'39.51"W
Botanical Name: Hydrangea macrophylla
Hydrangea: Greek, hydor for water, angeion for small vessel (fruit is cupped)
Macrophylla: Having large leaves
Common Name: Bigleaf hydrangea
Family Name: Hydrangeaceae
Origin: Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Korea
Positioning: Middle to background, foundation
Garden Themes: Asian-inspired, cottage, cutting, shade/woodland, coastal
Uses: Informal hedge, mass, border, accent, screen
Type: Deciduous shrub
Form: Round, upright
Size: 6' tall and wide, cultivars vary
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower
Bark: Green in youth, light brown with age, prominent leaf scars
Shape: Ovate, obovate, elliptical
Color: Medium, bright green (cultivars vary)
Flower: Summer to autumn. Very large, showy corymb, cyme, or umbel in white, shades of pink or blue (pending soil pH). Four possibly five petals per flower.
Fruit: Autumn. Capsules may be obscured by spent/dried flowers
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 3b-9, 14-24; H1
USDA Zones: 6-11
Light: Sun (coastal), part shade to deep shade
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: High
Texture: Sand, loam, clay, well-composted
Moisture Retention: Consistent moisture but well drained
pH: Highly acidic to highly alkaline (acidic soils can change pink blooms blue)
Tolerances: Coastal salt
Problems: Low toxicity
Branch Strength: Medium
Insects: Not recorded at time of post
Disease: Not recorded at time of post
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Extension Gardener. "Hydrangea macrophylla." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on August 24, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/hydrangea-macrophylla/.
History Daily. (May 11, 2019) "Hairpin Insanity: San Francisco’s Famous Lombard Street." Accessed on August 24, 2021, from https://historydaily.org/hairpin-insanity-san-franciscos-famous-lombard-street.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on July 27, 2021.
All other photos by TELCS.