True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

You’ve heard before on this page about my considerable inefficiency at growing azaleas. We used to have an annual azalea pull every spring and roast weenies over the resulting funeral pyre of dead specimens. 

Next in order of my ineptness are hydrangeas. As with azaleas, a lot of my early, and some of my late, failures have come at the hand of ignorance or stupidity on my part. John Wayne said you can’t fix stupid and how true it is. The 45 years (and counting) at our place would have produced, if they were all piled together, enough of a funeral pyre of dead azaleas and hydrangeas to make for a five alarm fire. Any of those two genera that have survived until today are toughies sure enough. 

We’re right on the cusp of a long hydrangea season, and I look forward to the remainder of spring, all summer, and into fall, living with them if, that is, they are still living. 

Some 30 years or so ago I ordered a hydrangea, ‘Blue Billow,’ from Winterthur Gardens in Delaware. The straggly little thing came in a quart pot, I believe, and was properly interred in a bed of goodies such as peat moss, aged manure and good soil. To use some antiquated language, I would say it has thriven. In fact, in the succeeding years I have divided it into at least 15 plants and they all give a good account of themselves. Very little winter damage has occurred. 

It is debated whether ‘Blue Billow’ is of the species serrata or macrophylla. I go with serrata, the mountain hydrangea, since it is obviously more winter hardy than the big-leaf hydrangea, of the macrophylla species. The latter have had frozen buds or even plants all the way to the ground regularly, while ‘Blue Billow’ has, joyfully, made it almost every year. 

‘Blue Billow,’ though scarce in retail outlets, is offered by numerous mail order firms, most of which will be the traditional little sprig often received from such sources. 

Our ‘Blue Billows’ are mostly in deep shade, which causes a bit less flower numbers but otherwise works fine. Like most soft wooded hydrangeas, the flowers will come blue in acid soils and pink in alkaline ones. If you want pink, you must add lime to acid soils, and if you want deeper blue, leaning toward purple, add iron. 

There are now on the market numerous other Hydrangea serrata varieties and species, most of which make into fine garden plants for our hardiness zones. On the other hand, many of the Hydrangea macrophylla ones will be claimed to be hardy into at least zone 6 or even 5, but this is a pipe dream. They may be root hardy but few if any are top-hardy that far north. Most are like the globular ones with big blue flower clusters that stop traffic, when they are not winter damaged. 

‘Blue Billow’ presents a dainty lace cap type flower, with the sterile petals surrounding a cluster of fuzzy little fertile ones in the center. This is often enhanced by a darker color of the fertile flowers, contrasting, blandly though it is, with the lighter tone of the lacecap of the outer, sterile ones. 


From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Buy up hydrangeas now.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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